Chapter 6 – Gender and Sexuality

Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, San Jose State University

Tami Blumenfield, Furman University

with Susan Harper, Texas Woman’s University

and Abby Gondek

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the impact of biological determinism on gender and sexual ideologies.
  • Describe ways in which gender and sexuality organize and structure the societies in which we live.
  • Discuss how some societies move beyond a gender binary.


Anthropologists are fond of pointing out that much of what we take for granted as “natural” in our lives is actually cultural—it is not grounded in the natural world or in biology but invented by humans.[2] Because culture is invented, it takes different forms in different places and changes over time in those places. Living in the twenty-first century, we have witnessed how rapidly and dramatically culture can change, from ways of communicating to the emergence of same-sex marriage. Similarly, many of us live in culturally diverse settings and experience how varied human cultural inventions can be.

We readily accept that clothing, language, and music are cultural—invented, created, and alterable—but often find it difficult to accept that gender and sexuality are not natural but deeply embedded in and shaped by culture. We struggle with the idea that the division of humans into two and only two categories, “male” and “female,” is not universal, that “male” and “female” are cultural concepts that take different forms and have different meanings cross-culturally. Similarly, human sexuality, rather than being simply natural is one of the most culturally significant, shaped, regulated, and symbolic of all human capacities. The concept of humans as either “heterosexual” or “homosexual” is a culturally and historically specific invention that is increasingly being challenged in the United States and elsewhere.

Part of the problem is that gender has a biological component, unlike other types of cultural inventions such as a sewing machine, cell phone, or poem. We do have bodies and there are some male-female differences, including in reproductive capacities and roles, albeit far fewer than we have been taught. Similarly, sexuality, sexual desires and responses, are partially rooted in human natural capacities. However, in many ways, sexuality and gender are like food. We have a biologically rooted need to eat to survive and we have the capacity to enjoy eating. What constitutes “food,” what is “delicious” or “repulsive,” the contexts and meanings that surround food and human eating—those are cultural. Many potentially edible items are not “food” (rats, bumblebees, and cats in the United States, for example), and the concept of “food” itself is embedded in elaborate conventions about eating: how, when, with whom, where, “utensils,” for what purposes? A “romantic dinner” at a “gourmet restaurant” is a complex cultural invention.

In short, gender and sexuality, like eating, have biological components. But cultures, over time, have erected complex and elaborate edifices around them, creating systems of meaning that often barely resemble what is natural and innate. We experience gender and sexuality largely through the prism of the culture or cultures to which we have been exposed and in which we have been raised.

In this chapter, we are asking you to reflect deeply on the ways in which what we have been taught to think of as natural, that is, our sex, gender, and our sexuality, is, in fact, deeply embedded in and shaped by our culture. We challenge you to explore exactly which, if any, aspects of our gender and our sexuality are totally natural.

One powerful aspect of culture, and a reason cultural norms feel so natural, is that we learn culture the way we learn our native language: without formal instruction, in social contexts, picking it up from others around us, without thinking. Soon, it becomes deeply embedded in our brains. We no longer think consciously about what the sounds we hear when someone says “hello” mean unless we do not speak English. Nor is it difficult to “tell the time” on a “clock” even though “time” and “clocks” are complex cultural inventions.

The same principles apply to gender and sexuality. We learn very early (by at least age three) about the categories of gender in our culture—that individuals are either “male” or “female” and that elaborate beliefs, behaviors, and meanings are associated with each gender. We can think of this complex set of ideas as a gender ideology or a cultural model of gender. All societies have gender ideologies, just as they have belief systems about other significant areas of life, such as health and disease, the natural world, and social relationships, including family. For an activity related to this section, see Activity 1.

Foundations of the Anthropology of Gender

Gender Ideologies, Biology, and Culture

Gender vs. Sex

Words can reveal cultural beliefs. A good example is the term “sex.” In the past, sex referred both to sexuality and to someone’s biologic sex: male or female. Today, although sex still refers to sexuality, “gender” now means the categories male, female, or increasingly, other gender possibilities. Why has this occurred?

The change in terminology reflects profound alterations in gender ideology in the United States (and elsewhere). In the past, influenced by Judeo-Christian religion and nineteenth and twentieth century scientific beliefs, biology (and reproductive capacity) was literally considered to be destiny. Males and females, at least “normal” males and females, were thought to be born with different intellectual, physical, and moral capacities, preferences, tastes, personalities, and predispositions for violence and suffering.[3]

Ironically, many cultures, including European Christianity in the Middle Ages, viewed women as having a strong, often “insatiable” sexual “drive” and capacity. But by the nineteenth century, women and their sexuality were largely defined in reproductive terms, as in their capacity to “carry a man’s child.” Even late-twentieth-century human sexuality texts often referred only to “reproductive systems,” to genitals as “reproductive” organs, and excluded the “clitoris” and other female organs of sexual pleasure that had no reproductive function. For women, the primary, if not sole, legitimate purpose of sexuality was reproduction.[4]

Nineteenth and mid-twentieth century European and U.S. gender ideologies linked sexuality and gender in other ways.[5] Sexual preference—the sex to whom one was attracted—was “naturally” heterosexual, at least among “normal” humans, and “normal,” according to mid-twentieth century Freudian-influenced psychology, was defined largely by whether one adhered to conventional gender roles for males and females. So, appropriately, “masculine” men were “naturally” attracted to “feminine” women and vice versa. Homosexuality, too, was depicted not just as a sexual preference but as gender-inappropriate role behavior, down to gestures and color of clothing.[6] This is apparent in old stereotypes of gay men as “effeminate” (acting like a female, wearing “female” fabrics such as silk or colors such as pink, and participating in “feminine” professions like ballet) and of lesbian women as “butch” (cropped hair, riding motorcycles, wearing leather—prototypical masculinity). Once again, separate phenomena—sexual preference and gender role performance—were conflated because of beliefs that rooted both in biology. “Abnormality” in one sphere (sexual preference) was linked to “abnormality” in the other sphere (gendered capacities and preferences).

In short, the gender and sexual ideologies were based on biological determinism. According to this theory, males and females were supposedly born fundamentally different reproductively and in other major capacities and preferences and were “naturally” (biologically) sexually attracted to each other, although women’s sexual “drive” was not very well developed relative to men’s and was reproductively oriented.

Rejecting Biological Determinism

Figure 1: Hindu deities: Vishnu and
his many “avatars” or forms (all male).

Decades of research on gender and sexuality, including by feminist anthropologists, has challenged these old theories, particularly biological determinism. We now understand that cultures, not nature, create the gender ideologies that go along with being born male or female and the ideologies vary widely, cross-culturally. What is considered “man’s work” in some societies, such as carrying heavy loads, or farming, can be “woman’s work” in others. What is “masculine” and “feminine” varies: pink and blue, for example, are culturally invented gender-color linkages, and skirts and “make-up” can be worn by men, indeed by “warriors.” Hindu deities, male and female, are highly decorated and difficult to distinguish, at least by conventional masculinist U.S. stereotypes (see examples and Figures 1 and 2).

Women can be thought of as stronger (“tougher,” more “rational”) than men. Phyllis Kaberry, an anthropologist who studied the Nsaw of Cameroon in the 1940s, said males in that culture argued that land preparation for the rizga crop was “a woman’s job, which is too strenuous for the men” and that “women could carry heavy loads because they had stronger foreheads.”[7] Among the Aka who live in the present-day Central African Republic, fathers have close, intimate, relationships with infants, play major roles in all aspects of infant-care, and can sometimes produce breast milk.[8] As for sexual desires, research on the human sexual response by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson established that men and women have equal biological capacities for sexual pleasure and orgasm and that, because males generally ejaculate simultaneously with orgasm, it is easier for women than men to have multiple orgasms.[9]

Figure 2: Hindu Deities: Vishnu and Goddess Shiva plus avatars.

Gender: A Cultural Invention and a Social Role

One’s biologic sex is a different phenomenon than one’s gender, which is socially and historically constructed.[10] Gender is a set of culturally invented expectations and therefore constitutes a role one assumes, learns, and performs, more or less consciously. It is an “identity” one can in theory choose, at least in some societies, although there is tremendous pressure, as in the United States, to conform to the gender role and identity linked to your biologic sex.

This is a profound transformation in how we think about both gender and sexuality. The reality of human biology is that males and females are shockingly similar.[11] There is arguably more variability within than between each gender, especially taking into account the enormous variability in human physical traits among human populations globally.[12] Notice, for example, the variability in height in the two photos of U.S. college students shown in Figures 3 and 4. Which gender is “taller”? Much of what has been defined as “biological” is actually cultural, so the possibilities for transformation and change are nearly endless! That can be liberating, especially when we are young and want to create identities that fit our particular configuration of abilities and preferences. It can also be upsetting to people who have deeply internalized and who want to maintain the old gender ideology.

The Gender Binary and Beyond

Figure 3: Gender variability: students in a Human Sexuality Class at San Jose State University with Dr. Carol Mukhopadhyay, 2010.

We anthropologists, as noted earlier, love to shake up notions of what is “natural” and “normal.” One common assumption is that all cultures divide human beings into two and only two genders, a binary or dualistic model of gender. However, in some cultures gender is more fluid and flexible, allowing individuals born as one biologic sex to assume another gender or creating more than two genders from which individuals can select. Examples of non-binary cultures come from pre-contact Native America. Anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict long ago identified a fairly widespread phenomenon of so-called “two-spirit” people, individuals who did not comfortably conform to the gender roles and gender ideology normally associated with their biologic sex. Among the pre-contact Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, which was a relatively gender-egalitarian horticultural society, for example, individuals could choose an alternative role of “not-men” or “not-women.” A two-spirited Zuni man would do the work and wear clothing normally associated with females, having shown a preference for female-identified activities and symbols at an early age. In some, but not all cases, he would eventually marry a man. Early European ethnocentric reports often described it as a form of homosexuality. Anthropologists suggested more-complex motivations, including dreams of selection by spirits, individual psychologies, biological characteristics, and negative aspects of male roles (e.g., warfare). Most significantly, these alternative gender roles were acceptable, publicly recognized, and sometimes venerated.[13]

Less is known about additional gender roles available to biological women, although stories of “manly hearted women” suggest a parallel among some Native American groups. For example, a Kutenai woman known to have lived in 1811 was originally married to a French-Canadian man but then returned to the Kutenai and assumed a male gender role, changing her name to Kauxuma nupika (Gone-to-the-Spirits), becoming a spiritual prophet, and eventually marrying a woman.[14]

Figure 4: Gender variability: students in Kalamazoo
at Michigan State University, with Dr. Carol
Mukhopadhyay, 2010.

A well-known example of a non-binary gender system is found among the Hijra in India. Often called a third gender, these individuals are usually biologically male but adopt female clothing, gestures, and names; eschew sexual desire and sexual activity; and go through religious rituals that give them certain divine powers, including blessing or cursing couples’ fertility and performing at weddings and births. Hijra may undergo voluntary surgical removal of genitals through a “nirvan” or rebirth operation. Some hijra are males born with ambiguous external genitals, such as a particularly small penis or testicles that did not fully descend.[15]

Research has shown that individuals with ambiguous genitals, sometimes called “intersex,” are surprisingly common. Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein estimate that such intersex individuals constitute five percent of human births.[16] So what are cultures to do when faced with an infant or child who cannot easily be “sexed?” Some cultures, including the United States, used to force children into one of the two binary categories, even if it required surgery or hormone therapy. But in other places, such as India and among the Isthmus Zapotec in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, they have instead created a third gender category that has an institutional identity and role to perform in society.[17]

These cross-cultural examples demonstrate that the traditional rigid binary gender model in the United States is neither universal nor necessary. While all cultures recognize at least two biological sexes, usually based on genitals visible at birth, and have created at least two gender roles, many cultures go beyond the binary model, offering a third or fourth gender category. Other cultures allow individuals to adopt, without sanctions, a gender role that is not congruent with their biological sex. In short, biology need not be destiny when it comes to gender roles, as we are increasingly discovering in the United States.

Variability among Binary Cultures

Even societies with a binary gender system exhibit enormous variability in the meanings and practices associated with being male or female. Sometimes male-female distinctions pervade virtually all aspects of life, structuring space, work, social life, communication, body decoration, and expressive forms such as music. For instance, both genders may farm, but may have separate fields for “male” and “female” crops and gender-specific crop rituals. Or, the village public space may be spatially segregated with a “men’s house” (a special dwelling only for men, like a “men’s club”) and a “women’s house.” In some societies, such as the Sambia of New Guinea, even when married couples occupy the same house, the space within the house is divided into male and female areas.[18]

Women and men can also have gender-specific religious rituals and deities and use gender-identified tools. There are cases of “male” and “female” foods, rains, and even “languages” (including words, verb forms, pronouns, inflections, and writing systems; one example is the Nu Shu writing system used by some women in parts of China in the twentieth century).[19] Gender ideologies can emphasize differences in character, capacities, and morality, sometimes portraying males and females as “opposites” on a continuum.

In societies that are highly segregated by gender, gender relationships sometimes are seen as hostile or oppositional with one of the genders (usually female) viewed as potentially threatening. Female bodily fluids, such as menstrual blood and vaginal secretions, can be dangerous, damaging to men, “impure,” and “polluting,” especially in ritual contexts. In other cases, however, menstrual blood is associated with positive power. A girl’s first menstruation may be celebrated publicly with elaborate community rituals, as among the Bemba in southern Africa, and subsequent monthly flows bring special privileges.[20] Men in some small-scale societies go through ritualized nose-bleeding, sometimes called “male menstruation,” though the meanings are quite complex.[21]

Gender Relations: Separate and Unequal

Of course, gender-differentiation is not unique to small-scale societies like the Sambia. Virtually all major world religions have traditionally segregated males and females spatially and “marked” them in other ways. Look at eighteenth- and nineteenth- century churches, which had gender-specific seating; at contemporary Saudi Arabia, Iranian, and conservative Malaysian mosques; and at Orthodox Jewish temples today in Israel and the United States.

Ambivalence and even fear of female sexuality, or negative associations with female bodily fluids, such as menstrual blood, are widespread in the world’s major religions. Orthodox Jewish women are not supposed to sleep in the same bed as their husbands when menstruating. In Kypseli, Greece, people believe that menstruating women can cause wine to go bad.[22] In some Catholic Portuguese villages, menstruating women are restricted from preparing fresh pork sausages and from being in the room where the sausages are made as their presence is believed to cause the pork to spoil. Contact with these women also supposedly wilts plants and causes inexplicable movements of objects.[23] Orthodox forms of Hinduism prohibit menstruating women from activities such as cooking and attending temple.

These traditions are being challenged. A 2016 British Broadcasting Company (BBC) television program, for example, described “Happy to Bleed,” a movement in India to change negative attitudes about menstruation and eliminate the ban on menstruating-age women entering the famous Sabriamala Temple in Kerala.[24]

Emergence of Public (Male) vs. Domestic (Female) Spheres

In large stratified and centralized societies—that is, the powerful empires (so-called “civilizations”) that have dominated much of the world for the past several thousand years—a “public” vs. “private” or “domestic” distinction appears. The public, extra-family sphere of life is a relatively recent development in human history even though most of us have grown up in or around cities and towns with their obvious public spaces, physical manifestations of the political, economic, and other extra-family institutions that characterize large-scale societies. In such settings, it is easy to identify the domestic or private spaces families occupy, but a similar public-domestic distinction exists in villages. The public sphere is associated with, and often dominated by, males. The domestic sphere, in contrast, is primarily associated with women—though it, too, can be divided into male and female spheres. In India, for example, where households frequently consist of multi-generational groups of male siblings and their families, there often are “lounging” spaces where men congregate, smoke pipes, chat, and meet visitors. Women’s spaces typically focus around the kitchen or cooking hearth (if outside) or at other sites of women’s activities.[25]In some cases, an inner court is the women’s area while the outer porch and roads that connect the houses are male spaces. In some Middle Eastern villages, women create over-the-roof paths for visiting each other without going “outside” into male spaces.[26]

The gender division between public and private/domestic, however, is as symbolic as it is spatial, often emphasizing a gender ideology of social separation between males and females (except young children), social regulation of sexuality and marriage, and male rights and control over females (wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers). It manifests as separate spaces in mosques, sex-segregated schools, and separate “ladies compartments” on trains, as in India (Figure 5).

Sign stating "mean not allowed"

Figure 5: A women only train car in India. Photograph by Ajay Tallam, 2007.

Of course, it is impossible to separate the genders completely. Rural women pass through the more-public spaces of a village to fetch water and firewood and to work in agricultural fields. Women shop in public markets, though that can be a “man’s job.” As girls more often attend school, as in India, they take public transportation and thus travel through public “male” spaces even if they travel to all-girl schools (Figure 6). At college, they can be immersed in and even live on campuses where men predominate, especially if they are studying engineering, computer science, or other technical subjects (Figure 7).

This can severely limit Indian girls’ educational and occupational choices, particularly for girls who come from relatively conservative families or regions.[27]

Figure 6: All-girls’ school in Bangalore, India.
Photograph by Carol Mukhopadhyay, 1989.

One way in which women navigate “male” spaces is by adopting routes, behavior (avoiding eye contact), and/or clothing that create separation.[28] The term “purdah,” the separation or segregation of women from men, literally means “veiling,” although other devices can be used. In nineteenth century Jaipur, Rajasthan, royal Rajput women inhabited the inner courtyard spaces of the palace. But an elaborate false building front, the hawa mahal, allowed them to view the comings and goings on the street without being exposed to the public male gaze.

Figure 7: Management studies graduate students at CUSAT-Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kerala, India. Photograph by Carol Mukhopadhyay, 1989.

As demand for educating girls has grown in traditionally sexually segregated societies, all-girl schools have been constructed (see Figure 6), paralleling processes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States. At the university level, however, prestigious schools that offer high-demand subjects such as engineering often have historically been all-male, excluding women as Harvard once did.[29]In other cases, there are no female faculty members teaching traditionally male subjects like engineering at all-women colleges. In Saudi Arabia, women’s universities have taught courses using closed-circuit television to avoid violating norms of sexual segregation, particularly for young, unmarried women.[30]In countries such as India, gynecologists and obstetricians have been predominantly female, in part because families object to male doctors examining and treating women. Thus, in places that do not have female physicians, women’s health can suffer.

Alternative Models of Gender: Complementary and Fluid

Not all binary cultures are gender-segregated; nor does gender hostility necessarily accompany gender separation. Nor are all binary cultures deeply concerned with, some might say obsessed with, regulating female sexuality and marriage. Premarital and extra-marital sex can even be common and acceptable, as among the !Kung San and Trobriand Islanders.[31]And men are not always clearly ranked over women as they typically are in stratified large-scale centralized societies with “patriarchal” systems. Instead, the two genders can be seen as complementary, equally valued and both recognized as necessary to society. Different need not mean unequal. The Lahu of southwest China and Thailand exemplify a complementary gender system in which men and women have distinct expected roles but a male-female pair is necessary to accomplish most daily tasks (Figure 9). A male-female pair historically took responsibility for local leadership. Male-female dyads completed daily household tasks in tandem and worked together in the fields. The title of anthropologist Shanshan Du’s book, Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs (1999), encapsulates how complementary gender roles defined Lahu society. A single chopstick is not very useful; neither is a single person, man or woman, in a dual-focused society.[32]

Figure 9: Lahu farmers in Chiangmai, Thailand.

Like the Lahu, the nearby Na believe men and women both play crucial roles in a family and household. Women are associated with birth and life while men take on tasks such as butchering animals and preparing for funerals (Figures 10 and 11). Every Na house has two large pillars in the central hearth room, one representing male identity and one representing female identity. Both are crucial, and the house might well topple symbolically without both pillars. As sociologist Zhou Huashan explained in his 2002 book about the Na, this is a society that “values women without diminishing men.” [33]

Anthropologists have also encountered relatively androgynous gender-binary cultures. In these cultures, some gender differentiation exists but “gender bending” and role-crossing are frequent, accepted, and reflect circumstances and individual capacities and preferences. Examples are the !Kung San mentioned earlier, Native American Washoe in the United States, and some segments of European societies in countries such as Sweden and Finland and, increasingly, in the United States.[34] Contemporary twenty-first century gender ideologies tend to emphasize commonality, not difference: shared human traits, flexibility, fluidity, and individual expression.

Figure 10: A Na woman, Sigih Lamu, weeds rice seedlings outside her family’s home in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. Photograph by Tami Blumenfield, 2002.

Figure 11: Na men carry a wooden structure to be used at a funeral. Photograph by Tami Blumenfield, 2002.

Even cultures with fairly well-defined gender roles do not necessarily view them as fixed, biologically rooted, permanent, “essentialist,” or “naturalized” as occurred in the traditional gender ideology in the United States.[35] Gender may not even be an “identity” in a psychological sense but, rather, a social role one assumes in a particular social context just as one moves between being a student, a daughter, an employee, a wife or husband, president of the bicycle club, and a musician.

Cultures also change over time through internal and external forces such as trade, conquest, colonialism, globalization, immigration, mass media, and, especially, films. Within every culture, there is tremendous diversity in class, ethnicity, religion, region, education level, and generation, as well as diversity related to more-individual family circumstances, predilections, and experiences. Gender expectations also vary with one’s age and stage in life as well as one’s social role, even within the family (e.g., “wife” vs. “sister” vs. “mother” vs. “mother-in-law” and “father” vs. “son” vs. “brother” vs “father-in-law”). Finally, people can appear to conform to cultural norms but find ways of working around or ignoring them.

Figure 12: Gulabi Gang in India.

Even in highly male-dominated, sexually segregated societies, women find ways to pursue their own goals, to be actors, and to push the boundaries of the gender system. Among Egyptian Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin families, for example, women rarely socialized outside their home compounds or with unrelated men. But within their spheres, they freely interacted with other women, could influence their husbands, and wrote and sang poetic couplets as expressive outlets.[36] In some of the poorest and least-developed areas of central India, where patrilocal extended-family male-controlled households reign, activist Sampat Pal has organized local rural women to combat violence based on dishonor and gender.[37] Her so-called “Gulabi Gang,” the subject of two films, illustrates both the possibilities of resistance and the difficulties of changing a deeply embedded system based on gender, caste, and class system (Figure 12).[38]For a related activity, see Activity 2: Understanding Gender from a Martian Perspective.

Unraveling Our Gender Myths: Primate Roots, “Man the Hunter,and Other “Origin Stories” of Gender and Male Dominance

Even unencumbered by pregnancy or infants, a female hunter would be less fleet, generally less strong, possibly more prone to changes in emotional tonus as a consequence of the estrus cycle, and less able to adapt to changes in temperature than males.[39]

—U.S. anthropologist, 1969

Women don’t ride motorcycles because they can’t; they can’t because they are not strong enough to put their legs down to stop it.[40]

—Five-year-old boy, Los Angeles, 1980

Men hunted because women were not allowed to come out of their houses and roam about in forests.[41]

—Pre-college student in India, 1990

All cultures have “creation” stories. Many have elaborate gender-related creation stories that describe the origins of males and females, their gender-specific traits, their relationships and sexual proclivities, and, sometimes, how one gender came to “dominate” the other. Our culture is no different. The Judeo-Christian Bible, like the Koran and other religious texts, addresses origins and gender (think of Adam and Eve), and traditional folk tales, songs, dances, and epic stories, such as the Ramayana in Hinduism and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, treat similar themes.

Science, too, has sought to understand gender differences. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of scientists, immersed in Darwinian theories, began to explore the evolutionary roots of what they assumed to be universal: male dominance. Of course, scientists, like the rest of us, view the world partially through their own cultural lenses and through a gendered version. Prior to the 1970s, women and gender relations were largely invisible in the research literature and most researchers were male so it is not surprising that 1960s theories reflected prevailing male-oriented folk beliefs about gender.[42]

The Hunting Way of Life “Molds Man” (and Woman)

Figure 13: Female baboon in estrus. Photograph by Carol Mukhopadhyay, Tanzania, 2010.

Figure 14: Baboon pair in tree: malefemale
voluntary relations. Photograph by Carol Mukhopadhyay, Tanzania, 2010.

The most popular and persistent theories argued that male dominance is universal, rooted in species-wide gendered biological traits that we acquired, first as part of our primate heritage, and further developed as we evolved from apes into humans. Emergence of “the hunting way of life” plays a major role in this story. Crucial components include: a diet consisting primarily of meat, obtained through planned, cooperative hunts, by all-male groups, that lasted several days and covered a wide territory. Such hunts would require persistence, skill, and physical stamina; tool kits to kill, butcher, transport, preserve, and share the meat; and a social organization consisting of a stable home base and a monogamous nuclear family. Several biological changes were attributed to adopting this way of life: a larger and more complex brain, human language, an upright posture (and humans’ unique foot and stride), loss of body hair, a long period of infant dependency, and the absence of “estrus” (ovulation-related female sexual arousal) (Figure 13), which made females sexually “receptive” throughout the monthly cycle. Other human characteristics purportedly made sex more enjoyable: frontal sex and fleshier breasts, buttocks, and genitals, especially the human penis. Making sex “sexier,” some speculated, cemented the pair-bond, helping to keep the man “around” and the family unit stable.[43]

Hunting was also linked to a “world view” in which the flight of animals from humans seemed natural and (male) aggression became normal, frequent, easy to learn, rewarded, and enjoyable. War, some have suggested, might psychologically be simply a form of hunting and pleasurable for male participants.[44] The Hunting Way of Life, in short, “molded man,” giving our species its distinctive characteristics. And as a result, we contemporary humans cannot erase the effects of our hunting past even though we live in cities, stalk nothing but a parking place, and can omit meat from our diets.

The biology, psychology, and customs that separate us from the apes—all these we owe to the hunters of time past. And, although the record is incomplete and speculation looms larger than fact, for those who would understand the origin and nature of human behavior there is no choice but to try to understand “Man the Hunter.”

—Washburn and Lancaster (1974)[45]

Gender roles and male dominance were supposed to be part of our evolutionary heritage. Males evolved to be food-providers—stronger, more aggressive, more effective leaders with cooperative and bonding capacities, planning skills, and technological inventiveness (tool-making). In this creation story, females never acquired those capacities because they were burdened by their reproductive roles—pregnancy, giving birth, lactation, and child care—and thus became dependent on males for food and protection. The gender gap widened over time. As males initiated, explored, invented, women stayed at home, nurtured, immersed themselves in domestic life. The result: men are active, women are passive; men are leaders, women are followers; men are dominant, women are subordinate.

Many of us have heard pieces of this Hunting Way of Life story. Some of the men Mukhopadhyay interviewed in Los Angeles in the late 1970s invoked “our hunting past” to explain why they—and men generally—operated barbeques rather than their wives. Women’s qualifications to be president were questioned on biological grounds such as “stamina” and “toughness.” Her women informants, all hospital nurses, doubted their navigational abilities, courage, and strength despite working in intensive care and regularly lifting heavy male patients. Mukhopadhyay encountered serious scholars who cited women’s menstrual cycle and “emotional instability” during ovulation to explain why women “can’t” hunt.

Similar stories are invoked today for everything from some men’s love of hunting to why men dominate “technical” fields, accumulate tools, have extra-marital affairs or commit the vast majority of homicides. Strength and toughness remain defining characteristics of masculinity in the United States, and these themes often permeate national political debates.[46] One element in the complex debate over gun control is the male-masculine strength-through-guns and man-the-hunter association, and it is still difficult for some males in the United States to feel comfortable with their soft, nurturant, emotional, and artistic sides.[47]

What is most striking about man-the-hunter scenarios is how closely they resemble 1950s U.S. models of family and gender, which were rooted in the late nineteenth century “cult of domesticity” and “true womanhood.” Father is “head” of the family and the final authority, whether in household decisions or in disciplining children. As “provider,” Father goes “outside” into the cold, cruel world, hunting for work. Mother, as “chief mom,” remains “inside” at the home base, creating a domestic refuge against the “survival of the fittest” “jungle.” American anthropologists seemed to have subconsciously projected their own folk models onto our early human ancestors.

Altering this supposedly “fundamental” gender system, according to widely read authors in the 1970s, would go against our basic “human nature.” This belief was applied to the political arena, then a virtually all-male domain, especially at state and national levels. The following quote from 1971 is particularly relevant and worthy of critical evaluation since, for the first time, a major U.S. political party selected a woman as its 2016 presidential candidate (See Text Box 3, Gender and the Presidential Election).

To make women equal participants in the political process, we will have to change the very process itself, which means changing a pattern bred into our behavior over the millennia.

—Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox[48]

Replacing Stories with Reality

Figure 15: Rhesus monkeys at the Periyar
Reserve in Kerala, India. Photograph by Carol Mukhopadhyay, 2008.

Figure 16: Baboon group with infants being carried by female. Photograph by Carol Mukhopadhyay, Tanzania, 2010.

Decades of research, much of it by a new generation of women scholars, have altered our view of the hunting way of life in our evolutionary past.[49] For example, the old stereotype of primates as living in male-centered, male-dominated groups does not accurately describe our closest primate relatives, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The stereotypes came from 1960s research on savannah, ground-dwelling baboons that suggested they were organized socially by a stable male-dominance hierarchy, the “core” of the group, that was established through force, regulated sexual access to females, and provided internal and external defense of the “troop” in a supposedly hostile savannah environment.[50] Females lacked hierarchies or coalitions, were passive, and were part of dominant male “harems.”

Critics first argued that baboons, as monkeys rather than apes, were too far removed from humans evolutionarily to tell us much about early human social organization. Then, further research on baboons living in other environments by primatologists such as Thelma Rowell discovered that those baboons were neither male-focused nor male-dominated. Instead, the stable group core was matrifocal—a mother and her offspring constituted the central and enduring ties. Nor did males control female sexuality. Quite the contrary in fact. Females mated freely and frequently, choosing males of all ages, sometimes establishing special relationships— “friends with favors.” Dominance, while infrequent, was not based simply on size or strength; it was learned, situational, and often stress-induced. And like other primates, both male and female baboons used sophisticated strategies, dubbed “primate politics,” to predict and manipulate the intricate social networks in which they lived.[51]

Rowell also restudied the savannah baboons. Even they did not fit the baboon “stereotype.” She found that their groups were loosely structured with no specialized stable male-leadership coalitions and were sociable, matrifocal, and infant-centered much like the Rhesus monkeys pictured below (see Figure 15). Females actively initiated sexual encounters with a variety of male partners. When attacked by predators or frightened by some other major threat, males, rather than “defending the troop,” typically would flee, running away first and leaving the females carrying infants to follow behind (Figures 16).[52]

Man the Hunter, the Meat-Eater?

The second, more important challenge was to key assumptions about the hunting way of life. Archaeological and paleontological fossil evidence and ethnographic data from contemporary foragers revealed that hunting and meat it provided were not the primary subsistence mode. Instead, gathered foods such as plants, nuts, fruits, roots and small fish found in rivers and ponds constituted the bulk of such diets and provided the most stable food source in all but a few settings (northerly climates, herd migration routes, and specific geographical and historical settings). When meat was important, it was more often “scavenged” or “caught” than hunted.

A major symposium on human evolution concluded that “opportunistic” “scavenging” was probably the best description of early human hunting activities. Often, tools found in pre-modern human sites such as caves would have been more appropriate for “smashing” scavenged bones than hunting live animals.[53] Hunting, when carried out, generally did not involve large-scale, all-male, cooperative expeditions involving extensive planning and lengthy expeditions over a wide territorial range. Instead, as among the Hadza of Tanzania, hunting was likely typically conducted by a single male, or perhaps two males, for a couple of hours, often without success. When hunting collectively, as occurs among the Mbuti in the Central African rainforest, groups of families likely participated with women and men driving animals into nets. Among the Agta of the Philippines, women rather than men hunt collectively using dogs to herd animals to a place where they can be killed.[54] And !Kung San men, despite what was shown in the 1957 ethnographic film The Hunters, do not normally hunt giraffe; they usually pursue small animals such as hares, rats, and gophers.

Discrediting the Hunting Hypothesis

Once the “hunting-meat” hypothesis was discredited, other parts of the theory began to unravel, especially the link between male dominance and female economic dependency. We now know that for most of human history—99 percent of it prior to the invention of agriculture some 10,000 or so years ago—women have “worked,” often providing the stable sources of food for their family. Richard Lee, Marjorie Shostak, and others have detailed, with caloric counts and time-work estimates, the significance of women’s gathering contributions even in societies such as the !Kung San, in which hunting occurs regularly.[55] In foraging societies that rely primarily on fish, women also play a major role, “collecting” fish from rivers, lakes, and ponds. The exceptions are atypical environments such as the Arctic.

Of course, “meat-getting” is a narrow definition of “food getting” or “subsistence” work. Many food processing activities are time-consuming. Collecting water and firewood is crucial, heavy work and is often done by women (Figure 17). Making and maintaining clothing, housing, and tools also occupy a significant amount of time. Early humans, both male and female, invented an array of items for carrying things (babies, wood, water), dug tubers, processed nuts, and cooked food. The invention of string some 24,000 years ago, a discovery so essential that it produced what some have called the “String Revolution,” is attributed to women.[56] There is the work of kinship, of healing, of ritual, of “teaching the next generation, and emotional work. All are part of the work of living and of the “invisible” work that women do.

Figure 17: Collecting firewood in Bansankusu,
Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nor is it just hunting that requires intelligence, planning, cooperation, and detailed knowledge. Foragers have lived in a wide variety of environments across the globe, some more challenging than others (such as Alaska). In all of these groups, both males and females have needed and have developed intensive detailed knowledge of local flora and fauna and strategies for using those resources. Human social interactions also require sophisticated mental and communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal. In short, humans’ complex brains and other modern traits developed as an adaptation to complex social life, a lengthy period of child-dependency and child-rearing that required cooperative nurturing, and many different kinds of “work” that even the simplest human societies performed.

Refuting Pregnancy and Motherhood as Debilitating

Finally, cross-cultural data refutes another central man-the-hunter stereotype: the “burden” of pregnancy and child care. Women’s reproductive roles do not generally prevent them from food-getting, including hunting; among the Agta, women hunt when pregnant. Foraging societies accommodate the work-reproduction “conflict” by spacing out their pregnancies using indigenous methods of “family planning” such as prolonged breast feeding, long post-pregnancy periods of sexual inactivity, and native herbs and medicinal plants. Child care, even for infants, is rarely solely the responsibility of the birth mother. Instead, multiple caretakers are the norm: spouses, children, other relatives, and neighbors.[57]Reciprocity is the key to human social life and to survival in small-scale societies, and reciprocal child care is but one example of such reciprocity. Children and infants accompany their mothers (or fathers) on gathering trips, as among the !Kung San, and on Aka collective net-hunting expeditions. Agta women carry nursing infants with them when gathering-hunting, leaving older children at home in the care of spouses or other relatives.[58]

In pre-industrial horticultural and agricultural societies, having children and “working” are not incompatible—quite the opposite! Anthropologists long ago identified “female farming systems,” especially in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, in which farming is predominantly a woman’s job and men “help out” as needed.[59]

In most agricultural societies, women who do not come from high-status or wealthy families perform a significant amount of agricultural labor, though it often goes unrecognized in the dominant gender ideology. Wet-rice agriculture, common in south and southeast Asia, is labor-intensive, particularly weeding and transplanting rice seedlings, which are often done by women (Figure 10). Harvesting rice, wheat, and other grains also entails essential input by women. Yet the Indian Census traditionally records only male family members as “farmers.” In the United States, women’s work on family-owned farms is often invisible.[60]

Women may accommodate their reproductive and child-rearing roles by engaging in work that is more compatible with child care, such as cooking, and in activities that occur closer to home and are interruptible and perhaps less dangerous, though cooking fires, stoves, and implements such as knives certainly can cause harm![61] More often, women adjust their food-getting “work” in response to the demands of pregnancy, breast-feeding, and other child care activities. They gather or process nuts while their children are napping; they take their children with them to the fields to weed or harvest and, in more recent times, to urban construction sites in places such as India, where women often do the heaviest (and lowest-paid) work.

In the United States, despite a long-standing cultural model of the stay-at-home mom, some mothers have always worked outside the home, mainly out of economic necessity. This shifting group includes single-divorced-widowed mothers and married African-Americans (pre- and post-slavery), immigrants, and Euro-American women with limited financial resources. But workplace policies (except during World War II) have historically made it harder rather than easier for women (and men) to carry out family responsibilities, including requiring married women and pregnant women to quit their jobs.[62] Circumstances have not improved much. While pregnant women in the United States are no longer automatically dismissed from their jobs—at least not legally—the United States lags far behind most European countries in providing affordable child care and paid parental leave.

Male Dominance: Universal and Biologically Rooted?

Unraveling the myth of the hunting way of life and women’s dependence on male hunting undermined the logic behind the argument for biologically rooted male dominance. Still, for feminist scholars, the question of male dominance remained important. Was it universal, “natural,” inevitable, and unalterable? Were some societies gender-egalitarian? Was gender inequality a cultural phenomenon, a product of culturally and historically specific conditions?

Research in the 1970s and 1980s addressed these questions.[63] Some argued that “sexual asymmetry” was universal and resulted from complex cultural processes related to women’s reproductive roles.[64]Others presented evidence of gender equality in small-scale societies (such as the !Kung San and Native American Iroquois) but argued that it had disappeared with the rise of private property and “the state.”[65] Still others focused on evaluating the “status of women” using multiple “variables” or identifying “key determinants” (e.g., economic, political, ecological, social, and cultural) of women’s status.”[66] By the late 1980s, scholars realized how difficult it was to define, much less measure, male dominance across cultures and even the “status of women” in one culture.

Think of our own society or the area in which you live. How would you go about assessing the “status of women” to determine whether it is male-dominated? What would you examine? What information would you gather and from whom? What difficulties might you encounter when making a judgment? Might men and women have different views? Then imagine trying to compare the status of women in your region to the status of women in, let’s say, the Philippines, Japan, or China or in a kin-based, small society like that of the Minangkabau living in Indonesia and the !Kung San in Botswana. Next, how might Martians, upon arriving in your city, decide whether you live in a “male dominated” culture? What would they notice? What would they have difficulty deciphering? This experiment gives you an idea of what anthropologists confronted—except they were trying to include all societies that ever existed. Many were accessible only through archaeological and paleontological evidence or through historical records, often made by travelers, sailors, or missionaries. Surviving small-scale cultures were surrounded by more-powerful societies that often imposed their cultures and gender ideologies on those under their control.

For example, the !Kung San of Southern Africa when studied by anthropologists, had already been pushed by European colonial rulers into marginal areas. Most were living on “reserves” similar to Indian reservations in the United States. Others lived in market towns and were sometimes involved in the tourist industry and in films such as the ethnographically flawed and ethnocentric film The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980). !Kung San women at the time were learning European Christian ideas about sexuality, clothing, and covering their breasts, and children were attending missionary-established schools, which taught the church’s and European views of gender and spousal roles along with the Bible, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the South African military tried to recruit San to fight against the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), taunting reluctant !Kung San men by calling them “chicken” and assuming, erroneously, that the !Kung San shared their “tough guys / tough guise” version of masculinity.[67]

Given the complexity of evaluating “universal male dominance,” scholars abandoned the search for simple “global” answers, for key “determinants” of women’s status that would apply to all societies. A 1988 Annual Review of Anthropology article by Mukhopadhyay and Higgins concluded that “One of the profound realizations of the past ten years is that the original questions, still unanswerable, may be both naive and inappropriate.”[68] Among other things, the concept of “status” contains at least five separate, potentially independent components: economics, power/authority, prestige, autonomy, and gender ideologies/beliefs. One’s life-cycle stage, kinship role, class, and other socio-economic and social-identity variables affect one’s gender status. Thus, even within a single culture, women’s lives are not uniform.[69]

New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender

More-recent research has been focused on improving the ethnographic and archaeological record and re-examining old material. Some have turned from cause-effect relations to better understanding how gender systems work and focusing on a single culture or cultural region. Others have explored a single topic, such as menstrual blood and cultural concepts of masculinity and infertility across cultures.[70]

Many American anthropologists “returned home,” looking with fresh eyes at the diversity of women’s lives in their own society: working-class women, immigrant women, women of various ethnic and racial groups, and women in different geographic regions and occupations.[71] Some ethnographers, for example, immersed themselves in the abortion debates, conducting fieldwork to understand the perspective and logic behind pro-choice and anti-choice activists in North Dakota. Others headed to college campuses, studying the “culture of romance” or fraternity gang rape.[72]Peggy Sanday’s work on sexual coercion, including her cross-cultural study of rape-prone societies, was followed by other studies of power-coercion-gender relationships, such as using new reproductive technologies for selecting the sex of children.[73]

Many previously unexplored areas such as the discourse around reproduction, representations of women in medical professions, images in popular culture, and international development policies (which had virtually ignored gender) came under critical scrutiny.[74] Others worked on identifying complex local factors and processes that produce particular configurations of gender and gender relations, such as the patrifocal (male-focused) cultural model of family in many parts of India.[75] Sexuality studies expanded, challenging existing binary paradigms, making visible the lives of lesbian mothers and other traditionally marginalized sexualities and identities.[76]

The past virtual invisibility of women in archaeology disappeared as a host of new studies was published, often by feminist anthropologists, including a pioneering volume by Joan Gero and Margaret Conkey, Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. That book gave rise to a multi-volume series specifically on gender and archaeology edited by Sarah Nelson. Everything from divisions of labor to power relations to sexuality could be scrutinized in the archaeological record.[77]

Some anthropologists argued that there are recurring patterns despite the complexity and variability of human gender systems. One is the impact of women’s economic contributions on their power, prestige, and autonomy.[78] Women’s work, alone, does not necessarily give them control or ownership of what they produce. It is not always valued and does not necessarily lead to political power. Women in many cultures engage in agricultural labor, but the fields are often owned and controlled by their husbands’ families or by a landlord, as in many parts of India and Iran.[79] The women have little authority, prestige, or autonomy.[80] Many foraging and some horticultural societies, on the other hand, recognize women’s economic and reproductive contributions, and that recognition may reflect relative equality in other spheres as well, including sexuality. Gender relations seem more egalitarian, overall, in small-scale societies such as the San, Trobrianders, and Na, in part because they are kinship-based, often with relatively few valuable resources that can be accumulated; those that exist are communally owned, usually by kinship groups in which both women and men have rights.

Another factor in gender equality is the social environment. Positive social relations—an absence of constant hostility or warfare with neighbors—seems to be correlated with relatively egalitarian gender relations. In contrast, militarized societies—whether small-scale horticultural groups like the Sambia who perceive their neighbors as potential enemies or large-scale stratified societies with formal military organizations and vast empires—seem to benefit men more than women overall.[81]Warrior societies culturally value men’s roles, and warfare gives men access to economic and political resources.

As to old stereotypes about why men are warriors, there may be another explanation. From a reproductive standpoint, men are far more expendable than women, especially women of reproductive age.[82] While this theme has not yet been taken up by many anthropologists, male roles in warfare could be more about expendability than supposed greater male strength, aggressiveness, or courage. One can ask why it has taken so long for women in the United States to be allowed to fly combat missions? Certainly it is not about women not being strong enough to carry the plane.[83]

Patriarchy . . . But What about Matriarchy?

The rise of stratified agriculture-intensive centralized “states” has tended to produce transformations in gender relations and gender ideologies that some have called patriarchy, a male-dominated political and authority structure and an ideology that privileges males over females overall and in every strata of society. Gender intersects with class and, often, with religion, caste, and ethnicity. So, while there could be powerful queens, males took precedence over females within royal families, and while upper-class Brahmin women in India could have male servants, they had far fewer formal assets, power, and rights than their brothers and husbands. Also, as noted earlier, families strictly controlled their movements, interactions with males, “social reputations,” and marriages. Similarly, while twentieth-century British colonial women in British-controlled India had power over some Indian men, they still could not vote, hold high political office, control their own fertility or sexuality, or exercise other rights available to their male counterparts.[84] Of course, poor lower-class lower-caste Indian women were (and still are) the most vulnerable and mistreated in India, more so overall than their brothers, husbands, fathers, or sons.

On the other hand, we have yet to find any “matriarchies,” that is, female-dominated societies in which the extent and range of women’s power, authority, status, and privilege parallels men’s in patriarchal societies. In the twentieth century, some anthropologists at first confused “matriarchy” with matrilineal. In matrilineal societies, descent or membership in a kinship group is transmitted from mothers to their children (male and female) and then, through daughters, to their children, and so forth (as in many Na families). Matrilineal societies create woman-centered kinship groups in which having daughters is often more important to “continuing the line” than having sons, and living arrangements after marriage often center around related women in a matrilocal extended family household (See Text Box 1, What Can We Learn from the Na?). Female sexuality may become less regulated since it is the mother who carries the “seed” of the lineage. In this sense, it is the reverse of the kinds of patrilineal, patrilocal, patrifocal male-oriented kinship groups and households one finds in many patriarchal societies. Peggy Sanday suggested, on these and other grounds, that the Minangkabau, a major ethnic group in Indonesia, is a matriarchy.[85]

Ethnographic data have shown that males, especially as members of matrilineages, can be powerful in matrilineal societies. Warfare, as previously mentioned, along with political and social stratification can alter gender dynamics. The Nayar (in Kerala, India), the Minangkabau, and the Na are matrilineal societies embedded in, or influenced by, dominant cultures and patriarchal religions such as Islam and Hinduism. The society of the Na in China is also matrifocal in some ways. Thus, the larger context, including contemporary global processes, can undermine women’s power and status.[86] At the same time, though, many societies are clearly matrifocal, are relatively female-centered, and do not have the kinds of gender ideologies and systems found in most patriarchal societies.[87]Text Boxes 1 and 2 provide examples of such systems.

Does Black Matriarchy Exist in Brazil? Histories of Slavery and African Cultural Survivals in Afro-Brazilian Religion

By Abby Gondek

Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian spirit possession religion in which Yoruba (West African) deities called orixás are honored at religious sites called terreiros where the Candomblé priestesses (mães do santo) and their “daughters” (filhas do santo) live. One of the central “hubs” of Candomblé worship in Brazil is the northeastern state of Bahia, where Afro-Brazilns make up more than 80 percent of the population in the capital city, Salvador. Brazil’s geography is perceived through the lenses of race and class since Bahia, a majority Afro-Brazilian state, is viewed as underdeveloped, backward, and poor relative to the whiter and wealthier Southern region.[88]

In the 1930s, a Jewish female anthropologist Ruth Landes provided a different perspective about Bahia, one that emphasized black women’s communal power. During the time in which Landes conducted her research, the Brazilian police persecuted Candomblé communities for “harboring communists.” The Brazilian government was linked with Nazism, torture, rape, and racism, and Afro-Brazilians resisted this oppression.[89] Also during this period, debate began among social scientists about whether Candomblé was a matriarchal religion in which women were the primary spiritual leaders. The debate was rooted in the question of where “black matriarchy” came from. Was it a result of the history of slavery or was it an African “cultural survival”? The debate was simultaneously about the power and importance of Afro-Brazilian women in spiritual and cultural life.

On one side of the debate was E. Franklin Frazier, an African-American sociologist trained at University of Chicago, who maintained that Candomblé and the lack of legal marriage gave women their important position in Bahia. He believed that black women had been matriarchal authorities since the slavery period and described them as defiant and self-reliant. On the other side of the debate was anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who was trained by German immigrant Franz Boas at Columbia University. Herskovits believed that black women’s economic roles demonstrated African cultural survivals, but downplayed the priestesses’ importance in Candomblé.[90] Herskovits portrayed patriarchy rather than matriarchy as the central organizing principle in Bahia. He argued that African cultural survivals in Brazil came from the patrilineal practices of Dahomey and Yoruba in West Africa and portrayed Bahian communities as male-centered with wives and “concubines” catering to men and battling each other for male attention.

Ruth Landes and her work triggered the debate about “black matriarchy” in Bahia. Landes had studied with anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict at Columbia University. She began her studies of Candomblé in 1938 in Salvador, Bahia, working with her research partner, guide, and significant other, Edison Carneiro, a scholar of Afro-Brazilian studies and journalist, resulting in publication in 1947 of The City of Women.[91] Landes contended that Afro-Brazilian women were the powerful matriarchal leaders of terreiros de Candomblé. She called them matriarchal because she argued that their leadership was “made up almost exclusively of women and, in any case controlled by women.”[92] Landes claimed that the women provided spiritual advice and sexual relationships in exchange for financial support from male patrons of the terreiros. She also explained that newer caboclo houses (in which indigenous spirits were worshipped in addition to Yoruba spirits) had less-stringent guidelines and allowed men to become priests and dance for the gods, actions considered taboo in the Yoruba tradition. Landes elaborated that these men were primarily “passive” homosexuals. She looked down on this “modern” development, which she viewed as detracting from the supposedly “pure” woman-centered Yoruba (West African) practices.[93]

Even Landes’ (controversial) argument about homosexuality was part of her claim about matriarchy; she contended that the homosexual men who became pais do santo (“fathers of the saint,” or Candomblé priests) had previously been “outcasts”—prostitutes and vagrants who were hounded by the police. By becoming like the “mothers” and acting as women, they could gain status and respect. Landes was strongly influenced by both Edison Carneiro’s opinion and the convictions of Martiniano Eliseu do Bonfim (a revered babalaô or “father of the secrets”) and the women priestesses of the traditional houses (Gantois, Casa Branca, and Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá) with whom she spent the majority of her time. Thus, her writings likely represent the views of her primary informants, making her work unique; at that time, anthropologists (ethnocentrically) considered themselves more knowledgeable about the cultures they studied than the people in those cultures.

Landes incorporated ideas from the pre-Brazil research of E. Franklin Frazier and Melville Herskovits to contend that the existence of the matriarchy in Bahia rested on women’s economic positions, sexuality, and capacities, which were influenced by (1) white slave owners’ preference for black women as heads of families and the inculcation of leadership traits in black women and not black men and (2) the history of women’s roles as property owners, market sellers, priestesses, and warriors in West Africa.[94]

Landes’ findings continue to be critiqued in contemporary academic contexts because some scholars disagree with her matriarchy thesis and her views about homosexual pais and filhos do santo. J. Lorand Matory, director of African and African-American research at Duke University, has taken one of the strongest positions against Landes, arguing that she altered the evidence to argue for the existence of the “cult matriarchate.” Matory believes that her division between “new” and “traditional” houses is a false one and that men traditionally were the leaders in Candomblé. In fact, Matory contends that, at the time of Landes’ research, more men than women were acting as priests.[95] In contrast, Cheryl Sterling sees Landes’ The City of Women as “still relevant today as the first feminist account of Candomblé” and maintains that Candomblé is a space in which Afro-Brazilian women are the “supreme authority” and that the terreiro is an enclave of “female power.” The Brazilian state stereotypes black women as socially pathological with “unstable” family structures, making them “sub-citizens,” but Sterling argues that Candomblé is a space in which female blackness prevails.[96]


Contemporary anthropology now recognizes the crucial role played by gender in human society. Anthropologists in the post-2000 era have focused on exploring fluidity within and beyond sexuality, incorporating a gendered lens in all anthropological research, and applying feminist science frameworks, discourse-narrative analyses, political theory, critical studies of race, and queer theory to better understand and theorize gendered dynamics and power. Pleasure, desire, trauma, mobility, boundaries, reproduction, violence, coercion, bio-politics, globalization, neoliberal “development” policies and discourses, immigration, and other areas of anthropological inquiry have also informed gender and sexuality studies. We next discuss some of those trends.[97]

Heteronormativity and Sexuality in the United States

In the long history of human sexual relationships, we see that most involve people from different biological sexes, but some societies recognize and even celebrate partnerships between members of the same biological sex.[98] In some places, religious institutions formalize unions while in others unions are recognized only once they result in a pregnancy or live birth. Thus, what many people in the United States consider “normal,” such as the partnership of one man and one woman in a sexually exclusive relationship legitimized by the state and federal government and often sanctioned by a religious institution, is actually heteronormative. Heteronormativity is a term coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the often-unnoticed system of rights and privileges that accompany normative sexual choices and family formation. For example, a “biologically female” woman attracted to a “biologically male” man who pursued that attraction and formed a relationship with that man would be following a heteronormative pattern in the United States. If she married him, she would be continuing to follow societal expectations related to gender and sexuality and would be agreeing to state involvement in her love life as she formalizes her relationship.

Despite pervasive messages reinforcing heteronormative social relations, people find other ways to satisfy their sexual desires and organize their families. Many people continue to choose partners from the so-called “opposite” sex, a phrase that reflects the old U.S. bipolar view of males and females as being at opposite ends of a range of characteristics (strong-weak, active-passive, hard-soft, outside-inside, Mars-Venus).[99]Others select partners from the same biological sex. Increasingly, people are choosing partners who attract them—perhaps female, perhaps male, and perhaps someone with ambiguous physical sexual characteristics.

Labels have changed rapidly in the United States during the twenty-first century as a wider range of sexual orientations has been openly acknowledged, accompanied by a shift in our binary view of sexuality. Rather than thinking of individuals as either heterosexual OR homosexual, scholars and activists now recognize a spectrum of sexual orientations. Given the U.S. focus on identity, it is not surprising that a range of new personhood categories, such as bisexual, queer, questioning, lesbian, and gay have emerged to reflect a more-fluid, shifting, expansive, and ambiguous conception of sexuality and sexual identity.

Transgender, meanwhile, is a category for people who transition from one sex to another, male to female or female to male, using a number of methods. Anthropologist David Valentine explored how the concept of “transgender” became established in the United States and found that many people who were identified by others as transgender did not embrace the label themselves. This label, too, has undergone a profound shift in usage, and the high-profile transition by Caitlyn Jenner in the mid-2010s has further shifted how people think about those who identify as transgender.[100]

By 2011, an estimated 8.7 million people in the United States identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.[101]These communities represent a vibrant, growing, and increasingly politically and economically powerful segment of the population. While people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender—or any of a number of other sexual and gender minorities—have existed throughout the United States’ history, it is only since the Stonewall uprisings of 1969 that the modern LGBT movement has been a key force in U.S. society.[102]Some activists, community members, and scholars argue that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender) is a better choice of labels than GLBT since it puts lesbian identity in the foreground—a key issue because the term “gay” is often used as an umbrella term and can erase recognition of individuals who are not gay males. Recently, the acronym has been expanded to include LGBTQ (queer or questioning), LGBTQQ (both queer and questioning), LGBTQIA (queer/questioning, intersex, and/or asexual), and LGBTQAIA (adding allies as well).

Like the U.S. population overall, the LGBTQ community is extremely diverse. Some African-Americans prefer the term “same-gender loving” because the other terms are seen as developed by and for “white people.” Emphasizing the importance and power of words, Jafari Sinclaire Allen explains that “same-gender loving” was “coined by the black queer activist Cleo Manago [around 1995] to mark a distinction between ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ culture and identification, and black men and women who have sex with members of the same sex.”[103]While scholars continue to use gay, lesbian, and queer and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control uses MSM (men who have sex with men), “same-gender loving” resonates in some urban communities.

Not everyone who might fit one of the LGBTQQIA designations consciously identifies with a group defined by sexual orientation. Some people highlight their other identities, as Minnesotans, for example, or their ethnicity, religion, profession, or hobby—whatever they consider central and important in their lives. Some scholars argue that heteronormativity allows people who self-identify as heterosexual the luxury of not being defined by their sexual orientation. They suggest that those who identify with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth be referred to as cisgender.[104]Only when labels are universal rather than used only for non-normative groups, they argue, will people become aware of discrimination based on differences in sexual preference.

Though people are urging adoption of sexual identity labels, not everyone is embracing the move to self-identify in a specific category. Thus, a man who is attracted to both men and women might self-identify as bisexual and join activist communities while another might prefer not to be incorporated into any sexual-preference-based politics. Some people prefer to eliminate acronyms altogether, instead embracing terms such as genderfluid and genderqueer that recognize a spectrum instead of a static identity. This freedom to self-identify or avoid categories altogether is important. Most of all, these shifts and debates demonstrate that, like the terms themselves, LGBTQ communities in the United States are diverse and dynamic with often-changing priorities and makeup.

Changing Attitudes toward LGBTQ People in the United States

In the last two decades, attitudes toward LGBTQ—particularly lesbian, gay and bisexual—people have changed dramatically. The most sweeping change is the extension of marriage rights to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. The first state to extend marriage rights was Massachusetts in 2003. By 2014, more than half of U.S. Americans said they believed same-sex couples should have the right to marry, and on June 26, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. supreme court declared that same-sex couples had the legal right to marry.[105] Few civil rights movements have seen such progress in such a short period of time. While many factors have influenced the shift in attitudes, sociologists and anthropologists have identified increased awareness of and exposure to LGBTQ people through the media and personal interactions as playing key roles.[106]

Legalization of same-sex marriage also helped normalize same-sex parenting. Sarah, whose three young children—including a set of twins—are mothered by Sarah and her partner, was active in campaigns for marriage equality in Minnesota and ecstatic when the campaign succeeded in 2013 (see Text Box 4).

However, legalization of same-sex marriage has not been welcomed everywhere in the United States. Anthropologist Jessica Johnson’s ethnographic work profiling a Seattle-based megachurch from 2006 through 2008 initially explored their efforts to oppose same-sex marriage. Later, she shifted her focus to the rhetoric of gender, masculinity, and cisgender sexuality used by the church and its pastor.[107] Official church communications dismissed homosexuality as aberrant and mobilized members to advocate against same-sex marriage. The church’s efforts were not successful.

Interestingly, activists and gender studies scholars express concern over incorporating marriage—a heteronormative institution some consider oppressive—into queer spaces not previously governed by state authority. These concerns may be overshadowed by a desire for normative lives and legal protections, but as sociologist Tamara Metz and others have argued, legally intertwining passion, romance, sexual intimacy, and economic rights and responsibilities is not necessarily a move in the right direction.[108] As Miriam Smith has written, “We must move beyond thinking of same-sex marriage and relationship recognition as struggles that pit allegedly normalized or assimilated same-sex couples against queer politics and sensibilities and, rather, recognize the increasingly complex gender politics of same-sex marriage and relationship recognition, a politics that implicates groups beyond the LGBT community.”[109]

While U.S. culture on the whole has become more supportive and accepting of LGBTQ people, they still face challenges. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not federally protected statuses. Thus, in 32 states (as of 2016), employers can legally refuse to hire and can fire someone simply for being LGBTQ.[110] Even in states where queer people have legal protection, transgender and other gender-diverse people do not. LGBTQ people can be legally denied housing and other important resources heterosexual people take for granted. LGBTQ youth made up 40 percent of homeless young people in the United States in 2012 and are often thrust into homelessness by family rejection.[111] Transgender people are the most vulnerable and experience high levels of violence, including homicide. See Activity 4: Bathroom Transgression.

Moving Toward Marriage Equality in Minnesota: Sarah’s Letter

In 2013, the Minnesota state legislature voted on whether to approve same-sex marriage. Before the vote, a woman named Sarah made the difficult decision to advocate publicly for the bill’s approval. In the process, she wrote the following letter.

Dear Minnesota Senator,

This is an open letter to you in support of the marriage equality bill. I may not be your constituent, and you may already know how you are planning to vote, but I ask you to read this letter with an open mind and heart nonetheless.

I want same-sex marriage for the same reasons as many others. My partner Abby and I met in the first days of 2004 and have created a loving home together with our three kids and two cats. We had a commitment ceremony in 2007 in Minneapolis and were legally married in Vancouver during our “honeymoon.” We want our marriage to be recognized because our kids deserve to have married parents, and because we constantly face increased stress as a result of having our relationship not recognized. But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because there is one conversation I have over and over again with my son that puts a pit in my stomach each time, and I’m ready for that pit to go away.

Abby and I both wear wedding bands. We designed them prior to our ceremony and spent more time on that decision than we did on the flowers, dresses, and music combined. Our son is now three and a half and, like other kids his age, he asks about everything. All the time. When I get him dressed, change his diaper (please let him be potty-trained soon), or wipe his nose, he sees my ring. And he always asks:

“Mama, what’s that ring on your finger?”

“It’s my wedding band.”

“Why you wear a wedding band?”

“Because when Ima and I got married, we picked out wedding bands and now we wear them every day. It shows that we love each other.”

“I want wear wedding band.”

“Someday when you’re all grown up, you’ll fall in love and get married. And you’ll get to wear a wedding band, too.”

“I’ll grow up and get married? And then I get a wedding band?”



And then he goes about his day. This conversation may seem silly and harmless to you, but read it again. Look at how many times the issue of marriage comes up. We call it a wedding band, but every time we say that, we know it’s not completely true because we were not legally wed in Minnesota. When I tell my son about our marriage or our wedding, I know I’m hiding a secret from him, but am I really supposed to explain that it was a “commitment ceremony” and we are “committed, but not “married”? He’s too young to be saddled with the pain that comes from being left out. He looks at our pictures and sees that his parents made a commitment to each other because of love. He doesn’t understand his grandfather’s speech recognizing how bittersweet the day was because the state we call home refused to bless our union as it blesses the unions of our friends. And he doesn’t understand that, when I tell him he will grow up and get married, his marriage will (most likely) be part of a tradition from which his parents are excluded.

Figure 19: Sarah’s family photo

I am grateful that he is blissfully unaware right now. Imagine having the conversation with your children. Imagine the pain you would feel if innocent conversations with your child reminded you constantly that your love is not valued by your community. Don’t get me wrong; our friends and family treated our ceremony as they would a legal wedding. We had a phenomenal time with good food, music, laughter, and joy. If our ceremony in Minneapolis had been enough, though, we wouldn’t have bothered to get legally married in Vancouver. There is something so powerful and intangible about walking into a government office and walking out with a marriage license. We are grateful we had the opportunity there, and simply wish our state would recognize our commitment as the marriage that it is.

Take a look at the picture of my family. It’s outdated, primarily because we can’t get our kids to sit still long enough for a photo. I’m on the right, Abby on the left. Our son is now 3.5 and our girls (twins) are almost 2. We can appreciate that this is a difficult vote for many of you and we would be honored if you think of our family and the impact this vote will have on us. We know many people outside of the Twin Cities never have a chance to meet families like ours. Tell them about us, if it helps. We are happy to answer any questions you may have. Thank you for reading.



Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 2013

Note: Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.

Sexuality outside the United States

Same-sex sexual and romantic relationships probably exist in every society, but concepts like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” are cultural products that, in many ways, reflect a culturally specific gender ideology and a set of beliefs about how sexual preferences develop. In many cultures (such as the Sambia discussed above), same-sex sex is a behavior, not an identity. Some individuals in India identify as practicing “female-female sexuality” or “male-male sexuality.” The film Fire by Mira Nair aroused tremendous controversy in India partly because it depicted a same-sex relationship between two married women somewhat graphically and because it suggested alternatives available to women stuck in unhappy and abusive patriarchal marriages.[112] Whether one is “homosexual” or “heterosexual” may not be linked simply to engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. Instead, as among some Brazilian males, your status in the sexual relationship, literally and symbolically, depends on (or determines!) whether you are the inserter or the penetrated.[113] Which would you expect involves higher status?

Even anthropologists who are sensitive to cross-cultural variations in the terms and understandings that accompany same-sex sexual and romantic relationships can still unconsciously project their own meanings onto other cultures. Evelyn Blackwood, an American, described how surprised she was to realize that her Sumatran lover, who called herself a “Tombois,” had a different conception of what constituted a “lesbian” identity and lesbian relationship than she did.[114] We must be careful not to assume that other cultures share LGBTQ identities as they are understood in the United States and many European countries.

Furthermore, each country has its own approach to sexuality and marriage, and reproduction often plays a central role. In Israel, an embrace of pro-natalist policies for Jewish Israelis has meant that expensive reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization are provided to women at no cost or are heavily subsidized. An Israeli gay activist described how surprised queer activists from other countries were when they found that nearly all Israeli female same-sex couples were raising children. (This embrace of same-sex parenting did not extend to male couples, for whom the state did not provide assisted reproductive support.) The pro-natalist policies can be traced in part to Israel’s emergence as a state: founded in the aftermath of persecution and systematic genocide of Jewish residents of Europe from 1937 through 1945, Israel initially promoted policies that encouraged births at least in part as resistance to Nazi attempts to destroy the Jewish people. The contexts may be less dramatic elsewhere, but local and national histories often inform policies and practices.

In Thailand, Ara Wilson has explored how biological women embrace identities as toms and dees. Although these terms seem to be derived from English-language concepts (dees is etymologically related to “ladies”), suggesting international influences, the ubiquity and acceptance of toms and dees in Thailand does diverge from patterns in the United States.[115]

In China (as elsewhere), the experiences of those involved in male-male sexuality and those involved in female-female sexuality can differ. In her book Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China, Lucetta Yip Lo Kam discusses how lesbians in China note their lack of public social spaces compared with gay men.[116] Even the words lala and tongzhi index different categories from the English terms: lala encompasses lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people while tongzhi is a gloss term that usually refers to gay men but has been expanded in the last two decades to other uses. (Tongzhi is a cooptation of the Chinese-language socialist-era term for comrade.)

Language makes a difference in how individuals and communities articulate their identities. Anthropologists such as Kam have commented on how sharing their own backgrounds with those with whom they work can be instrumental in gaining trust and building rapport. Her identity as a Chinese-speaking queer anthropologist and activist from Hong Kong helped women in Shanghai feel comfortable speaking with her and willing to include her in their networks.[117]

From these examples, we see that approaches to sexuality in different parts of the world are evolving, just as gender norms in the United States are undergoing tremendous shifts. Anthropologists often cross boundaries to research these changes, and their contributions will continue to shape understandings of the broad range of approaches to sexuality.

Masculinity Studies

Students in gender studies and anthropology courses on gender are often surprised to find that they will be learning about men as well as women. Early women’s studies initially employed what has been called an “add women and stir” approach, which led to examinations of gender as a social construct and of women’s issues in contemporary society. In the 1990s, women’s studies expanded to become gender studies, incorporating the study of other genders, sexuality, and issues of gender and social justice.[118] Gender was recognized as being fundamentally relational: femaleness is linked to maleness, femininity to masculinity. One outgrowth of that work is the field of “masculinity studies.”[119]

Masculinity studies goes beyond men and their roles to explore the relational aspects of gender. One focus is the enculturation processes through which boys learn about and learn to perform “manhood.” Many U.S. studies (and several excellent videos, such as Tough Guise by Jackson Katz), have examined the role of popular culture in teaching boys our culture’s key concepts of masculinity, such as being “tough” and “strong,” and shown how this “tough guise” stance affects men’s relationships with women, with other men, and with societal institutions, reinforcing a culture of violent masculinity. Sociologist Michael Kimmel has further suggested that boys are taught that they live in a “perilous world” he terms “Guyland.”[120]

Anthropologists began exploring concepts of masculinity cross-culturally as early as the 1970s, resulting in several key publications in 1981, including Herdt’s first book on the Sambia of New Guinea and Ortner and Whitehead’s volume, Sexual Meanings. In 1990, Gilmore analyzed cross-cultural ethnographic data in his Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts in Masculinity.[121]Other work followed, including a provocative video on the Sambia, Guardians of the Flutes. But the growth of studies of men and masculinity in the United States also stimulated new research approaches, such as “performative” aspects of masculinity and how gender functions in wealthier, post-industrial societies and communities with access to new technologies and mass media.[122]

Anthropologists sometimes turn to unconventional information sources as they explore gendered culture, including popular television commercials. Interestingly, the 2015 Super Bowl commercials produced for the Always feminine product brand also focused on gender themes in its #Likeagirl campaign, which probed the damaging connotations of the phrases “throw like a girl” and “run like a girl” by first asking boys and girls to act out running and throwing, and then asking them to act out a girl running and throwing. A companion clip further explored the negative impacts of anti-girl messages, provoking dialogue among Super Bowl viewers and in social media spaces (though, ironically, that dialogue was intended to promote consumption of feminine products). As the clips remind us, while boys and men play major roles in perceptions related to gender, so do the women who raise them, often reinforcing gendered expectations for play and aspiration. Of course, women, like men, are enculturated into their culture’s gender ideology.[123] Both girls and boys—and adults—are profoundly influenced by popular culture.

Though scholars from many disciplines publish important work on masculinity, anthropologists, with their cross-cultural research and perspectives, have significantly deepened and enriched interdisciplinary understandings. Anthropologists have made strong contributions not only by providing nuanced portrayals (of, for example, men in prison, heroin users, migrant laborers, college students, and athletes in the United States) but also through offering vivid accounts of expectations of men in other societies, including the relationship between those expectations and warfare. This can include differences in expectations based on a person’s age, other role-based variations, and transformation of traditional roles as a result of globalization.[124]

Not all societies expect men to be “tough guys/guise,” and those that do go about it in different ways and result in different impacts on men and women.[125]For example, in Sichuan Province in China, young Nuosu men must prove their maturity through risky behavior such as theft. In recent years, theft has been supplanted for many by heroin use, particularly as young men have left their home communities for urban areas (where they are often feared by city residents and attract suspicion).[126] Meanwhile, in the Middle East, technologies such as assisted reproduction are challenging and reshaping ideas about masculinity among some Arab men, particularly men who acknowledge and struggle with infertility. There and elsewhere, conceptions of fatherhood are considered crucial components of masculinity. In Japan, for example, a man who has not fathered a child is not considered to be fully adult.[127]

Elsewhere, as we saw in the first part of this chapter, men are expected to be gentle nurturers of young children and to behave in ways that do not fit typical U.S. stereotypes. In Na communities, men dote on babies and small children, often rushing to pick them up when they enter a room. In South Korea, men in wildly popular singing groups wear eyeliner and elaborate clothing that would be unusual for U.S. groups, and throughout China and India, as in many other parts of the world, heterosexual men walk down the street holding hands or arm-in-arm without causing raised eyebrows. Physical contact between men, especially in sex-segregated societies, is probably far more common than contact between men and women! Touch is a human form of intimacy that need not have sexual implications. So if male-male relations are the most intimate in a society, physical expressions of those relations are “normal” overall unless there is a cultural fear of male physical intimacy. There is much more nuance in actual behavior than initial appearances lead people to believe.

Anthropologists are also applying approaches taken in American studies to other cultures. They are engaging in more-intimate discussions of males’ self-perceptions, dilemmas, and challenges and have not hesitated to intercede, carefully, in the communities in which they work. Visual anthropologist Harjant Gill, conducting research in the Punjab region of India, began asking men about pressures they faced and found that the conversations prompted unexpected reflection. Gill titled his film Mardistan (Macholand) and shepherded the film through television broadcasts and smaller-scale viewings to encourage wide discussion in India of the issues he explored.[128] For a related activity, see Activity 5: Analyzing Gendered Stereotypes and Masculinity in Music Videos.


In 1968, a cigarette company in the United States decided to target women as tobacco consumers and used a clever marketing campaign to entice them to take up smoking. “You’ve come a long way, baby!” billboards proclaimed. Women, according to the carefully constructed rhetoric, had moved away from their historic oppressed status and could—and should—now enjoy the full complement of twentieth-century consumer pleasures. Like men, they deserved to enjoy themselves and relax with a cigarette. The campaigns were extremely successful; within several years, smoking rates among women had increased dramatically. But had women really come a long way? We now know that tobacco (including in vaporized form) is a highly addictive substance and that its use is correlated with a host of serious health conditions. In responding to the marketing rhetoric, women moved into a new sphere of bodily pleasure and possibly enjoyed increased independence, but they did so at a huge cost to their health. They also succumbed to a long-term financial relationship with tobacco companies who relied on addicting individuals in order to profit. Knowing about the structures at work behind the scenes and the risks they took, few people today would agree that women’s embrace of tobacco represented a huge step forward.

Perhaps saying “You’ve come a long way, baby!” with the cynical interpretation with which we read it today can serve as an analogy for our contemporary explorations of gender and culture. Certainly, many women in the United States today enjoy heightened freedoms. We can travel to previously forbidden spaces, study disciplines long considered the domain of men, shape our families to meet our own needs, work in whatever field we choose, and, we believe, live according to our own wishes. But we would be naive to ignore how gender continues to shape, constrain, and inform our lives. The research and methods of anthropology can help us become more aware of the ongoing consequences of our gendered heritage and the ways in which we are all complicit in maintaining gender ideologies that limit and restrict people’s possibilities.

By committing to speak out against subtle, gender-based discrimination and to support those struggling along difficult paths, today’s anthropologists can emulate pioneers such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, who sought to fuse research and action. May we all be kinder to those who differ from the norm, whatever that norm may be. Only then will we all—women, men and those who identify with neither category—have truly come a long way. (But we will leave the infantilizing “baby” to those tobacco companies!)

discussion questions

  1. What is “natural” about how you experience gender and human sexuality? What aspects are at least partially shaped by culture? How do other cultures’ beliefs and practices regarding gender and sexuality differ from those commonly found in the United States? Are there any parallels? Does it depend on which U.S. community we are talking about? What about your own beliefs and practices?
  2. Reflect on the various ways you have “learned” about gender and sexuality throughout your life. Which influences do you think had the biggest impact?
  3. How important is your gender to how you think about yourself, to your “identity” or self-definition, to your everyday life? Reflect on what it would be like to be a different gender.
  4. How important is your “sexuality” and “sexual orientation” to how you think about yourself, to your identity or self-definition? Reflect on what it would be like if you altered your sexual identity or practices.
  5. In what ways have your school settings been shaped by and around gender norms?
  6. How are anthropologists influenced by gender norms? How has this affected the discipline of anthropology?


Androgyny: cultural definitions of gender that recognize some gender differentiation, but also accept “gender bending” and role-crossing according to individual capacities and preferences.

Binary model of gender: cultural definitions of gender that include only two identities–male and female.

Biologic sex: refers to male and female identity based on internal and external sex organs and chromosomes. While male and female are the most common biologic sexes, a percentage of the human population is intersex with ambiguous or mixed biological sex characteristics.

Biological determinism: a theory that biological differences between males and females leads to fundamentally different capacities, preferences, and gendered behaviors. This scientifically unsupported view suggests that gender roles are rooted in biology, not culture.

Cisgender: a term used to describe those who identify with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth.

Dyads: two people in a socially approved pairing. One example is a married couple.

Gender: the set of culturally and historically invented beliefs and expectations about gender that one learns and performs. Gender is an “identity” one can choose in some societies, but there is pressure in all societies to conform to expected gender roles and identities.

Gender ideology: a complex set of beliefs about gender and gendered capacities, propensities, preferences, identities and socially expected behaviors and interactions that apply to males, females, and other gender categories. Gender ideology can differ among cultures and is acquired through enculturation. Also known as a cultural model of gender.

Heteronormativity: a term coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the often-unnoticed system of rights and privileges that accompany normative sexual choices and family formation.

Legitimizing ideologies: a set of complex belief systems, often developed by those in power, to rationalize, explain, and perpetuate systems of inequality.

Matrifocal: groups of related females (e.g. mother-her sisters-their offspring) form the core of the family and constitute the family’s most central and enduring social and emotional ties.

Matrilineal: societies where descent or kinship group membership is transmitted through women, from mothers to their children (male and female), and then through daughters, to their children, and so forth.

Matrilocal: a woman-centered kinship group where living arrangements after marriage often center around households containing related women.

Patriarchy: describes a society with a male-dominated political and authority structure and an ideology that privileges males over females in domestic and public spheres.

Patrifocal: groups of related males (e.g. a father-his brothers) and their male offspring form the core of the family and constitute the family’s most central and enduring social and emotional ties.

Patrilineal: societies where descent or kinship group membership is transmitted through men, from men to their children (male and female), and then through sons, to their children, and so forth.

Patrilocal: a male-centered kinship group where living arrangements after marriage often center around households containing related men.

Third gender: a gender identity that exists in non-binary gender systems offering one or more gender roles separate from male or female.

Transgender: a category for people who transition from one sex to another, either male-to-female or female-to-male.


Educational Media Companies and Distributors:

  • Documentary Education Resources. One of the earliest distributors of anthropology-ethnographic films. Includes older, but still very useful, ethnographic films. Such films document ways of life that are rapidly disappearing.
  • Media Education Foundation. Focuses on contemporary USA culture, with a wide range of videos analyzing mass media, popular culture, and advertising. Videos often include teaching guides.
  • Women Make Movies. Wide range of films/videos by women filmmakers on diverse topics, social groups, both within the US and throughout the world. One of the earliest distributors of films on gender.
  • Women’s Media Center. More U.S.-centered resources, especially contemporary issues of women’s representation in the media.

Some Key Accessible Readings by Anthropologists:

Brettell, Carolyn and Brettell, Carolyn B. and Carolyn F. Sargent, eds. Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 6th edition (New York: Routledge, 2012). Excellent collection of articles, with overviews. Also includes a Film Bibliography for each topical section of the book.

Geller, Pamela L. and Miranda K. Stockett, eds., Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Many articles by biological and archeological anthropologists.

Hodgson, Dorothy L., ed. The Gender, Culture, and Power Reader. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Useful reader for students and non-specialist readers. Includes a wide range of articles, often adapted from longer academic articles.

Ellen Lewin, ed., Feminist Anthropology: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006). Excellent collection with introductory essay by editor, a pioneer in feminist and Lesbian-Gay studies.

Strum, Shirley and Fedigan, Linda, eds., Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Ward, Martha and Monica Edelstein, A World full of Women. 6th edition (New York: Routledge/Taylor Francis, 2014). Readable overview of the field.

Some Useful Organizational Websites

American Men’s Studies Association

Association for Feminist Anthropology, American Anthropological Association

VOICES: Journal of the Association for Feminist Anthropology

Book reviews from the Association for Feminist Anthropology

Association for Queer Anthropology

Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University

Feminist Majority Foundation

Guttmacher Center (Research on reproductive health)

National Women’s Studies Association

Planned Parenthood


Dr. Mukhopadhyay specializes in gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, and culture-cognition, with research in the USA and India on gendered families, politics, and science-engineering. In graduate school she co-created one of the earliest gender-culture courses. She has developed numerous gender classes and taught, for 20 years, a popular anthropology and gender-oriented, multi-section Human Sexuality course. Gender-related publications include: Cognitive Anthropology Through a Gendered Lens (2011). How Exportable are Western Theories of Gendered Science? (2009), A Feminist Cognitive Anthropology: The Case of Women and Mathematics (2004), Women, Education and Family Structure in India (1994, with S. Seymour). She co-authored an early Annual Review of Anthropology article on gender (1988) and is in the Association for Feminist Anthropology. In other work, she served as a Key Advisor for the AAA RACE project; co-authored How Real is Race: A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology, (2nd Edition, 2014) and promotes active learning approaches to teaching about culture (cf.2007).

Image of the author.

Tami Blumenfield is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at Furman University and was a 2016 Fulbright Scholar affiliated with Yunnan University. Since 2001, she has been engaged in a long-term ethnographic fieldwork project in northwest Yunnan Province, studying changes in education, social life, and ecology in Na communities. Blumenfield is the co-editor of Cultural Heritage Politics in China, with Helaine Silverman (2013), and of Doing Fieldwork in China…With Kids! with Candice Cornet (2016). Blumenfield also produced Some Na Ceremonies, a Berkeley Media film by Onci Archei and Ruheng Duoji. Blumenfield holds a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of Washington.

Image of the author.

Susan Harper, Ph.D., is an educator, activist, and advocate in Dallas, Texas. She holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Southern Methodist University and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from Texas Woman’s University. Her ethnographic research focuses on New Religious Movements, primarily NeoPaganism, in the American South; the intersection of gender, sexuality, and religious identity; and ses, sexuality, and sex education. Her work has been published in the Journal of Bisexuality. Susan is passionate about a variety of social justice causes, including domestic and intimate partner violence prevention and recovery, sexual assault prevention and recovery, LGBTQ equality and inclusion, and educational justice. She has given presentations on LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion to a variety of audiences, including the North Texas Society of Human Resource Managers, The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center, and various religious organizations. She teaches courses in anthropology, sociology, and Women’s and Gender Studies at various universities and colleges in the DFW area. She also serves as Graduate Reader/Editor for Texas Woman’s University. She is currently working on an autoethnography about burlesque and visual anthropology project exploring the use of Pinterest by practitioners of NeoPaganism.

Image of the author.

Abby Gondek is a PhD candidate in Global and Socio-cultural Studies (majoring in Anthropology/Sociology) at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. She defended her dissertation proposal in April 2016. Her project, “Jewish Women’s Transracial, Transdisciplinary and Transnational Social Science Networks, 1920–1970” uses social network analysis and grounded theory methodology to understand the relationships between the anti-racist and pro-political/economic justice stance taken by Jewish female social scientists and their Jewish gendered-racialized subjectivities. Further information about her work is available from and as well as


The authors wish to thank the many people who supported this writing project. We especially appreciate the editorial guidance of Nina Brown and the constructive feedback from two anonymous reviewers. We are grateful to our students as well, particularly those in Blumenfield’s Gender in East Asia at Furman University who read a draft version of this chapter in 2016 and shared feedback that helped us improve the chapter, and to Mukhopadhyay’s students at California State University Chico and at San Jose State University. We also thank the many individuals who shared their lives with us and with other anthropologists, enabling us to understand and appreciate the breadth, depth, and richness of human cultural diversity. Finally, Carol Mukhopadhyay extends her thanks to Nina Brown and Tami Blumenfield, and to Susan Seymour, on many levels, for help on the 2016 Gender and the Presidential Election text box.

  1.  The Introduction and much of the material in the Foundations segment draws upon and synthesizes Mukhopadhyay’s decades of research, writing, and teaching courses on culture, gender, and human sexuality. Some of it has been published. Other material comes from lecture notes. See
  2. We use quotation marks here and elsewhere in the chapter to alert readers to a culturally specific, culturally invented concept in the United States. We need to approach U.S. cultural inventions the same way we would a concept we encountered in a foreign, so-called “exotic” culture.
  3. See Carolyn B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent, Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2005). Also, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender. Biological Theories About Women and Men (New York: Basic Books, 1991). For some web-based examples of these nineteenth century views, see article at For a list of descriptive terms, see
  4. For an example of a textbook, see Herant A. Katchadurian, Fundamentals of Human Sexuality (Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1989). See also Linda Stone, Kinship and Gender: An Introduction (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013).
  5. Material in the following paragraphs comes from Mukhopadhyay, unpublished Human Sexuality lecture notes.
  6. Herant A. Katchadurian, Fundamentals of Human Sexuality365.
  7. Phyllis Kaberry, Women of the Grassfields. A Study of the Economic Position of Women in Bamenda, British Cameroons (Colonial Research publication 14. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.1952) The image comes from the cover of her book, which is also available online:
  8. See Barry S. Hewlett, Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991); and personal communication with Mukhopadhyay.
  9. W.H. Masters and V.E. Johnson, Human Sexual Response (New York: Bantam Books, 1966).
  10. Some feminist scholars have also questioned the “naturalness” of the biological categories male and female. See for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999 [1990]).
  11. For genital similarities, see Janet S. Hyde and John D. DeLamater, Understanding Human Sexuality (McGraw Hill, 2014), 94–101. For more parallels, see Mukhopadhyay’s online Human Sexuality course materials, at
  12. For some idea of the enormous variability in human physical characteristics, see Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 in C. Mukhopadhyay, R. Henze, and Y. Moses, How Real is Race: Race, Culture and Biology (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).
  13. Information about alternative gender roles in pre-contact Native American communities can be found in Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein, A World Full of Women (Boston: Pearson, 2013). Also, see the 2011 PBS Independent Lens film Two Spirits for an account of the role of two-spirit ideology in Navajo communities, including the story of a Navajo teenager who was the victim of a hate crime because of his two-spirit identity.
  14. Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein, A World Full of Women. 
  15. Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: the Hijras of India (Boston, MA: Cengage, 1999); Serena Nanda, Gender Diversity: Cross-cultural Variations (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland 2000); and Gayatri Reddy and Serena Nanda, “Hijras: An “Alternative” Sex/Gender in India,” in Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. C. Brettell and C. Sargent, 278–285 (Upper Saddle River New Jersey: Pearson, 2005).
  16. Janet S. Hyde and John D. DeLamater, Understanding Human Sexuality, 99; Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein, A World Full of Women.
  17. Beverly Chinas, personal communication with Mukhopadhyay. See also her writings on Isthmus Zapotec women such as: Beverly Chinas, The Isthmus Zapotecs: A Matrifocal Culture of Mexico (New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers 1997). For a film on this culture, see Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne, Blossoms of Fire, Film (San Francisco: Film Arts Foundation, 2001).
  18. Gilbert Herdt, The Sambia (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 2006). For an excellent film see Gilbert Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes (London UK: BBC, 1994).
  19. More information about the Nu shu writing system can be found in the film by Yue-Qing Yang, Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China (New York: Women Make Movies, 1999).
  20. Ernestine Friedl, Women and Men: An Anthropologist’s View (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975). See Audrey Richards, Chisungu: A Girl’s Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Zambia (London: Faber, 1956) and A. Richards, Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia, An Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe (London: Oxford, 1939).
  21. See for example, Ian Hogbin, The Island of Menstruating Men: Religion in Wogeo, New Guinea (Scranton, PA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1970).
  22. Susannah M Hoffman, Richard A Cowan and Paul Aratow, Kypseli: Men and Women Apart A Divided Reality (Berkeley CA: Berkeley Media, 1976).
  23. Denise Lawrence, Menstrual Politics: Women and Pigs in Rural Portugal, in Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruationed. Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, 117–136 (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1988.), 122–123.
  24. See Some women are posing with photos of menstrual pads and hashtags #happytobleed:
  25. See the film by Michael Camerini and Rina Gill, Dadi’s Family (Watertown, MA: DER, 1981).
  26. Cynthia Nelson, “Public and Private Politics: Women in the Middle Eastern World” American Ethnologist 1 no. 3 (1974): 551–56.
  27. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, “Family Structure and Indian Women’s Participation in Science and Engineering,” in Women, Education and Family Structure in India, ed. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay and Susan Seymour, 103–133 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
  28. Elizabeth Fernea, Guests of the Ethnography of an Iraqi Village (New York: Anchor Books, 1965).
  29. Susan Seymour, Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
  30. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, “Women in Science: Is the Glass Ceiling Disappearing?” Proceedings of conference organized by the National Institute of Science and Technology Development Studies, the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India; Indian Council of Social Science Research; and the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum. March 8–10, 2004. New Delhi, India.
  31.  For the !Kung San, see Marjorie Shostak, Nisa: Life and Words of a Kung Woman (New York: Vintage, 1983). For Trobrianders, see Annette B. Weiner, The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1987).
  32. Shanshan Du, Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs: Gender Unity and Gender Equality Among the Lahu of Southwest China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
  33. Zhou Huashan, Zhong nu bu qingnan de muxi mosuo: Wufu de guodu? [Matrilineal Mosuo, Valuing Women without Devaluing Men: A Society without Fathers or Husbands?] (Beijing: Guangming Ribao Chubanshe, 2009 [2001]).
  34. Ernestine Friedl, Women and Men: An Anthropologist’s View (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975).
  35. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, “Sati or Shakti: Women, Culture and Politics in India,” in Perspectives on Power: Women in Asia, Africa and Latin America, ed. Jean O’Barr, 11–26 (Durham: Center for International Studies, Duke University 1982).
  36. Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
  37. Mukhopadhyay and Seymour use the term “patrifocal” to describe households that consist of related males, usually brothers, and their sons, and the spouses and children of those males. See C. Mukhopadhyay and S. Seymour, “Introduction” in Women, Family, and Education in India (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
  38. For powerful documentaries see, the film by Nishta Jain, Gulabi Gang (Stavanger, Norway: Kudos Family Distribution, 2012); and the film by Kim Longinotto, Pink Saris (New York: Women Make Movies, 2011).
  39. Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005[1969]), 45.
  40. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, The Sexual Division of Labor in the Family, PhD Dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 1980, 192.
  41.  Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, fieldnotes, India; and Mukhopadhyay, The Cultural Context of Gendered Science: The Case of India, 2001,
  42. For example, the major symposium on Man the Hunter sponsored by Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research included only four women among more than sixty listed participants. See Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, Man the Hunter (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1972[1968]), xiv–xvi.
  43. Mukhopadhyay, Lecture Notes, Human Sexuality, Gender and Culture.
  44. S.Washburn and C.S. Lancaster, “The Evolution of Hunting.” in Man the Hunter, 299.
  45. Ibid., 303.
  46. Jackson Katz, Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood and American Culture (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2013).
  47. Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes, The Armor of Light (New York: Fork Films, 2015).
  48. Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, The Imperial Animal (New York: Transaction Publishers, 1997 [1971]), 101.
  49. Some useful reviews include the following: Linda M. Fedigan, “The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution” Annual Review of Anthropology 16 (1986): 25–66; Linda Fedigan, Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Pamela L. Geller and Miranda K. Stockett. Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2006); Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, Engendering Archeology: Women and Prehistory (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991); Shirley Strum and Linda Fedigan Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender and Society. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Meredith F. Small, What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Evolution of Human Mating (New York: Doubleday, 1995); Nancy Makepeace Tanner, On Becoming Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). For a readable short article, see Meredith Small, “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” Discover MagazineJune 1991, 46–51.
  50. Irven DeVore, ed. Primate Behavior (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).
  51. Ibid. Also, for primate politics in particular, see Sarah B. Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999 [1981]). See also Hrdy’s website
  52. Thelma Rowell. Social Behaviour of Monkeys (New York: Penguin Books, 1972). For an excellent online article on Rowell’s work with additional references, read Vinciane Despret, “Culture and Gender Do Not Dissolve into How Scientists ‘Read’ Nature: Thelma Rowell’s Heterodoxy.” In Rebels of Life. Iconoclastic Biologists in the Twentieth Century, edited by O. Hartman and M. Friedrich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 340–355.
  53. See Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Man the Hunter (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1972[1968]).
  54. See Estioko-Griffin, Agnes A. Daughters of the Forest. Natural History 95(5):36–43 (May 1986).
  55. Richard B. Lee, The !Kung San. Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  56. Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein, A World Full of Women26.
  57. Susan Seymour, “Multiple Caretaking of Infants and Young Children: An Area in Critical Need of a Feminist Psychological Anthropology,” Ethos 32 no. (2004): 538–556.
  58. Serena Nanda and Richard L. Warms, Cultural Anthropology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006), 274.
  59. Ester Boserup, Women’s Role in Economic Development (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970); Barbara D. Miller, Cultural Anthropology (Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2012).
  60. Mauma Downie and Christina Gladwin, Florida Farm Wives: They Help the Family Farm Survive (Gainesville: Food and Resource Economics Department, University of Florida, 1981).
  61. Judith K. Brown, “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex,” American Anthropologist 72 (1970):1073–78.
  62. See for some contemporary examples of the challenges and obstacles workplaces pose for working mothers, as well as efforts to advocate for improved accommodation of parenting and working.
  63. See reviews in Naomi Quinn, “Anthropological Studies of Women’s Status,” Annual Review of Anthropology 6 (1977): 181–225; Carol Mukhopadhyay and Patricia HigginsAnthropological Studies of the Status of Women Revisited: l977-l987” Annual Review of Anthropology 17 (1988):461–95.
  64. Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, ed. Woman, Culture and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974).
  65. Rayna Rapp Reiter, ed. Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975); Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives. The Past and Future of Sexual Equality (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979).
  66. Peggy Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
  67. For an alternative ethnographic, research based video see N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman1980.
  68. Carol Mukhopadhyay and Patricia Higgins, Anthropological Studies of the Status of Women Revisited: l977-l987,” Annual Review of Anthropology 17 (1988), 462.
  69. Ibid.
  70. See for example, Evelyn Blackwood. Webs of Power. Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. 2000); Marcia Inhorn, Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, ed. Blood Magic. The Anthropology of Menstruation.(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Marcia Inhorn, and Frank Van Balen, eds. Infertility around the Globe: New Thinking on Childlessness, Gender and Reproductive Technologies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  71. Johnnetta Cole, ed. All American Women: Lines That Divide, Ties That Bind (New York:Free Press, 1986).Louise Lamphere, Helena Ragone and Patricia Zavella, eds. Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. (New York: Routledge, 1997).
  72. See for example, Faye Ginsburg. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart. Educated in Romance. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990); Peggy Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
  73. Peggy Sanday, “The Socio-cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-cultural Study” Journal of Social Issues 37 no. 5 (1981): 5–27. See also Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology. Appreciating Cultural Diversity (New York: McGraw Hill, 2013); Veena Das, Violence, Gender and Subjectivity, Annual Reviews of Anthropology 37 (2008):283–299; Tulsi Patel, ed. Sex-Selective Abortion in India. Gender, Society and New Reproductive Technologies (New Delhi, India: Sage Publications, 2007).
  74. Eleanor Leacock and Helen I. Safa, eds., Women’s Work: Development and the Division of Labor by Gender (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1986); Nandini Gunewardena and Ann Kingsolver, eds. The Gender of Globalization: Women Navigating Cultural and Economic Marginalities (Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2008); Kay B.Warren and Susan C. Bourque, “Women, Technology, and Development Ideologies. Frameworks and Findings,” in Sandra Morgen, ed. Critical Reviews for Research and Teaching (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association Publication, 1989), 382–410.
  75. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay and Susan Seymour, ed. Women, Education and Family Structure in India (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
  76. Ellen Lewin, Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1993).
  77. See Joan Gero and Margaret Conkey, ed. Engendering Archeology. Women and Prehistory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Sarah M. Nelson, Worlds of Gender. The Archeology of Women’s Lives Around the Globe. (Lanham, MD: Altamira, 2007). See also earlier volumes. Rosemary A. Joyce, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender and Archeology (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008); Barbara Voss, “Sexuality Studies in Archeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 317–336.
  78. The following analysis was developed by Mukhopadhyay in scholarly papers and in lecture notes.
  79. Mary E. Hegland, Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).
  80. This analysis was developed by Mukhopadhyay in scholarly papers and in lecture notes. An example of this pattern from Iran is Mary E. Hegland, Days of Revolution.
  81. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology. Appreciating Cultural Diversity.15th ed. (McGraw Hill, 2013).
  82. E. Friedl, Women and Men: An Anthropologist’s View; C. Mukhopadhyay and Patricia Higgins, “Anthropological Studies of the Status of Women Revisited: 1977–1987.” Annual Review of Anthropology 17 (1988): 461–495.
  83. One 1970s male pilot, when asked about why there were no women pilots, said, without thinking, “Because women aren’t strong enough to fly the plane!” He then realized what he’d said and laughed. From Mukhopadhyay, field notes, 1980.
  84. Ann Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable. The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in Twentieth-century Colonial Cultures,” in Situated Lives. Gender and Culture in Everyday Life, ed. Louise Lamphere, H. Ragone, and P. Zavella, 373–399 (New York: Routledge, 1997).
  85. Peggy Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2002).
  86. Mukhopadhyay, lecture notes, Gender and Culture.
  87. See for instance Annette B. Weiner, The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea; Martha Ward and Monica Edelstein, A World Full of Women; Carolyn B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent, eds. Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 
  88. Kirsten Marie Ernst,“Rios, Pontes E Overdrives:” Northeastern Regionalism in a Globalized Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); John Collins, “‘BUT WHAT IF I SHOULD NEED TO DEFECATE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD, MADAME?’: Empire, Redemption, and the ‘Tradition of the Oppressed’ in a Brazilian World Heritage Site,” Cultural Anthropology 23 no. 2 (2012): 279–328; Jan Rocha, “Analysis: Brazil’s ‘Racial Democracy’” BBC News, April 19, 2000; Allan Charles Dawson, “Food and Spirits: Religion, Gender, and Identity in the ‘African’ Cuisine of Northeast Brazil,” African and Black Diaspora 5 (2012): 243–263; Alan P Marcus, “Sex, Color and Geography: Racialized Relations in Brazil and Its Predicaments” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103(5): 1282–1299.
  89. Ruth Landes, The City of Women (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1947), 2, 6–13, 61–64, 92, 106.
  90. E. Franklin Frazier“The Negro Family in Bahia, Brazil” American Sociological Review 7 no. 4 (1942): 476–477E. Franklin FrazierThe Negro Family in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1939), 125. For the opposing view, see Mark Alan Healey“‘The Sweet Matriarchy of Bahia’: Ruth Landes’ Ethnography of Race and Gender.” Disposition: The Cultural Practice of Latinamericanism II 23 no. 50 (1998): 101.
  91. See Melville J. Herskovits“The Negro in Bahia, Brazil: A Problem in Method” American Sociological Review 8 no. 4 (1943): 395–396; Edison Carneiro, “Letters from Edison Carneiro to Ruth Landes: Dating from September 28, 1938 to March 14, 1946” (Washington, DC: Box 2 Ruth Landes Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, 1938); Ruth Landes, The City of Women (New York: MacMillan Company, 1947).
  92. Ruth Landes“Fetish Worship in Brazil” The Journal of American Folklore 53 no. 210(1940): 261.
  93. Ruth LandesThe City of Women (New York: MacMillan Company, 1947), 31–32, 37.
  94. Ruth Landes“Negro Slavery and Female Status” African Affairs 52 no. 206 (1953): 55. Also, Ruth Landes“A Cult Matriarchate and Male Homosexuality” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 35 no. 3 (1940): 386–387, 393–394; Ruth Landes, “Negro Slavery and Female Status,” African Affairs 52 no. 206 (1953): 55–57.
  95. J. Lorand Matory“Gendered Agendas: The Secrets Scholars Keep about Yorùbá-Atlantic Religion,” Gender & History 15 no. 3 (2003)413
  96. Cheryl Sterling, “Women-Space, Power, and the Sacred in Afro-Brazilian Culture,” The Global South 4 no. 1 (2010): 71–93.
  97. There is a huge body of research on these (and other) topics that we simply have not been able to cover in one chapter of a book. We hope the material and references we have provided will give readers a starting point for further investigation!
  98. Many gender studies scholars have moved away from labeling people “biologically female” or “biologically male,” shifting instead to terms like “assigned female at birth” and “assigned male at birth.” Terms that foreground assignment help recognize the fluidity of gender identity and the existence of intersex people who do not fit neatly into those categories.
  99. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, “A Feminist Cognitive Anthropology: The Case of Women and Mathematics” Ethos 32 no. 4 (2004): 458–492.
  100. David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). See also Jessi Hempel, “My Brother’s Pregnancy and the Making of a New American Family” TIME September 2016.
  101.  Gary G. Gates, “How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender?” University of California, Los Angeles: Williams Institute, 2011. 
  102. David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked a Gay Revolution (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010); Eric Marcus, Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights (New York: Harper Collins, 2002). 
  103. Jafari Sinclaire Allen, “‘In the Life’ In Diaspora: Autonomy / Desire / Community,” in Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights, ed. Peter Aggleton and Richard Parker (New York: Routledge, 2010), 459. 
  104.  Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook, “Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: ‘Gender Normals,’ Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality” Gender and Society 23 no. 4 (2009): 440–464.
  105. Justin McCarthy, “Same-Sex Marriage Support Reaches New High at 55%.” Gallup.
  106. Ellen Lewin and William Leap, Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002); William Leap and Ellen Lewin, Out in the Field: Reflections of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
  107. Jessica Johnson, “The Citizen-Soldier: Masculinity, War, and Sacrifice at an Emerging Church in Seattle, Washington.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33 no. 2 (2010): 326–351.
  108. Tamara Metz, Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State, and the Case for Their Divorce (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  109. Miriam Smith, “Gender Politics and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate in the United States,” Social Politics 17 no. 1 (2010): 1–28. Quote is on p.1
  110.  Luke Malone, “Here Are The 32 States Where You Can Be Fired For Being LGBT,”, February 12, 2015.
  111. The Williams Institute. 2012. “America’s Shame: 40% of Homeless Youth are LGBT Kids.” San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, 13 July.
  112. Fire, film by Mira Nair. 1996.
  113. Don Kulick, “The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes” American Anthropologist 99 no. 3 (1997): 574–585.
  114. Evelyn Blackwood, “Tombois in West Sumatra: Constructing Masculinity and Erotic Desire,” in Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, ed. Ellen Lewin, 411–434 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
  115. Ara Wilson, The Intimate Economies of Bangkok: Tomboys, Tycoons, and Avon Ladies in the Global City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  116. Lucetta Yip Lo Kam, Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012).
  117. Ibid.
  118. See Agatha M. Beins and Judith L. Kennedy, Women’s Studies for the Future: Foundations, Interrogations, Politics (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Florence Howe and Mari Jo Buhl, The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from the 30 Founding Mothers (New York: The Feminist Press, 2000); Marilyn J. Boxer and Caroline Stimpson, When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women’s Studies in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); Susan Shaw and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014).
  119. Rachel Adams and Michael Savan, The Masculinity Studies Reader (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002); Judith Keagan Gardiner, Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Matthew C. Gutmann, “Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 26 no. 1 (2007): 385–409. There were a number of earlier explorations of masculinity, several focused on African-American males. See for example Michelle Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Warner Books, 1980).
  120. See especially numerous films available through Media Education Foundation and Women Make Movies. See also Susan Bordo, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999); Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014). Also, Jackson Katz’ film Tough Guise 2: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity (2013) and the website have other books, articles, and workshops on gender violence prevention. See also Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).
  121. Thomas Grego, Mehinaku: The Drama of Daily Life in a Brazilian Indian Village (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977). See also Paula Brown and Georgeda Buchbinder, Man and Woman in the New Guinea Highlands (Washington DC: American Anthropological Association, 1976); Gilbert Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes (film); Stanley Brandeis, Metaphors of Masculinity: Sex and Status in Andalusian Folklore (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980); Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, Sexual Meanings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
  122. See article by Matthew C. Guttman, “Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (2007): 385–409.
  123. See several excellent videos through Media Education Foundation including Dreamworlds 3, Killing Us Softly 4, The Purity Myth as well as those addressing masculinity such as Tough Guise 2, Joystick Warriors, and Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.
  124. Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Seth M. Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Mary H. Moran, “Warriors or Soldiers? Masculinity and Ritual Transvestism in the Liberian Civil War,” in Situated Lives, ed. Louise Lamphere, Helena Ragone, and Patricia Zavella, 440–450. New York: Routledge, 1997); Kimberly Theidon, “Reconstructing Masculinities: The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration of Former Combatants in Colombia,” in The Gender, Culture, and Power Reader, ed. Dorothy Hodgson, 420–429 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Casey High, “Warriors, Hunters, and Bruce Lee: Gendered Agency and the Transformation of Amazonian Masculinity” American Ethnologist 37 no. 4 (2010): 753–770.
  125. James W. Messerschmidt, Masculinities in the Making: From the Local to the Global (Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2015).
  126. Liu Shao-hua, Passage to Manhood: Youth, Masculinity, and Migration in Southwest China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  127. See Marcia C. Inhorn, The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); Marcia C. Inhorn, Wendy Chavkin, and Jose-Alberto Navarro, Globalized Fatherhood. New York: Berghahn. For discussion of Japan, see Mark J. McLelland. 2005. “Salarymen Doing Queer: Gay Men and the Heterosexual Public Sphere in Japan,” in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan, edited by M. J. McLelland and R. Dasgupta, 96–110 (New York: Routledge, 2014).
  128. Dipanita Nath, “Mardistan: Four Men Talk about Masculinity in Harjant Gill’s Film,” The Indian Express, August 25, 2014. The film is available online: