Cultural Anthropology

Many cultural practices across the world have exhibited a common factor, that of men having greater powers compared to women. Most of these cultures, except for a few, are described as patriarchal societies where major decisions that affect the society are made by a group of males invariantly described as council of elders. In fact, as observed by Lerner, the term elder is synonymous with men in many cultures and exclusively excludes women. This thus goes far to explain how women became subordinates to their male counterparts in many cultures. Ruth Benedict and Sherry B. Ortner address this issue in their respective works from an anthropological point of view. This paper discusses the relationship between Benedict’s approach to anthropology and Ortner’s view that female subordination is a cultural universality.

Benedict and Sherry Approaches to Anthropology and Female Subordination

The roles of women in many cultures across the world have been defined in such a way that looking at them from a standby point of view, one would not help to notice the disparity over their male counterpart. In many cultures across the world, the priori of male oriented roles is higher and lucrative than that of female roles. That is, the males are the ones to perform the highest sacred rituals and rites, hold the highest political positions in elderly councils and in general wield most powers economically, socially, and culturally. As such, there is a general feeling, albeit with evidence that female subordination is a cultural universal since it occurs in many cultures across the world.

Benedict’s exposition of cultural practices in a number of societies brings out the argument that males are superior to females in the society. As she points out, certain societies such as Kwakiutl are individualistic in nature to the point that individualism is being exhibited even in marriage.

Kwakiutl men prides in inflicting pain to whoever is seen as an obstacle to their ascension to fame or authority. The megalomaniac character of males in this society, which is a reflection of many other societies, dwarfs the ability of females to compete of equal scales with males since they are brought up to be aggressive and masochistic. Women on the other hand, are assigned to household chores such as looking after children, which does not require aggressiveness and brutalism that their husbands are exposed to in the battlefield.

This observation by Benedict mirrors Ortner’s argument that social definition of gender in terms of roles and duties performed in a way of making females subordinate to males in society. How does one explain the reaction of a male figure that went into forest to hunt for lions and leopards only to come home to find that his wife was chased away by a rogue bull? Ultimately, the woman is expected to tame the bull regardless of whether it is rogue or not since, she is culturally deemed as unfit to fight with a lion in the forest. Such role stereotyping, in accordance to gender, leads to the subordinate status that women in many cultures hold.

Sexual orientation and formation play a bigger role in condemning women to subordination in many cultures. For instance, Benedict observes that women in Kwakiutl culture who were undergoing menstruation were isolated in taboo beliefs. As such, this period justified the need for a male to marry another wife since menstruating females were considered filthy and unclean. Men on their part needed to expend their sexual energy regardless of whether their wives were menstruating or not and therefore resorted to marrying another wife.  

Thus, polygamy was justified on this ground. In the same manner, several wives symbolized an increased social status and accumulated wealth, which in itself meant that the women were properties owned by the man. Naturally, any property must submit to its master. It cannot and should not question the authority of the master at any single moment. In the same way, the master should strive to make his status more revered so that the property continues to tremble before him.

Similarly, Ortner addresses the issue of sexual orientation at length, pointing out how the issue of menstrual period was exploited to make male appear superior to women. For instance, menstruating females were not supposed to approach a wounded soldier or even meet with men who were going to war as. The society saw this, culturally, as a bad omen to the soldiers and the society. Ortner observes that,  “ women [during menstruation] formerly rode inferior horses and evidently this loomed as a source of contamination, for they were not allowed to either approach a wounded man or men starting on a war party.”  Ortner further points out that even in societies that can remotely be considered matriarchal, menstruating women were sidelined either by their fellow women or by other men who enjoyed lower privileges as compared to them.

Characteristically, menstruation was a powerful tool that the society used to make women to become subordinate to men. Thus, as Ortner observes, the line is drawn, menstruation is a big threat to warfare, and of the most revered institution in any society. Therefore, menstruating women cannot be left with such matters regardless of the positions they hold in that society.

However, there is a stark difference between Benedict and Ortner in their approaches to the topic of subordination in societies. Benedict confines her approach to cultural practices and argues that males are culturally predisposed to be domineering in any culture, and as such, their position cannot be challenged. He adds that the male are the ones that protect families and the entire society from outside aggression. Therefore, they are naturally entitled to this position of being the better half in their families.

On the other hand, Ortner questions the possibility of male being not only culturally superior but also biologically predisposed. Biological determinism, which has so far failed to reveal the truth in the hypothesis, should indicate existence of “something” superior in the male species that makes female subordinate to them. All women should thus accept this “something” for its existence. However, as Ortner argues, this is not the case as anthropology has failed to prove existence of something unique in the male biological makeup that would give them a passage for higher positions compared to their female counterparts. In retrospect, the society seems to harbor a tendency to view female as something that is at lower order of existence than itself. 

Benedict and Ortner expositions on female subordination are rather exhaustive. Benedict explains in detail how egalitarian cultures required women to cultivate their own crops including the yams, which is shared with their husbands. Crop failure is blamed on the woman’s inability to perform even simply tasks like farming and this would mean that the man must enjoy a greater superiority since he comes home each day with an animal captured in the forest or with loots from the neighborhood. Ortner’s discussion of the female physiological predisposition to procreate puts her in a tricky position since most of the physiological processes that she undergoes in the process of procreating life are not beneficial to her health or being.

Instead, these processes are taxing emotionally and physically since they are painful and irrelevant to the woman. Furthermore, the culture in which the woman lives does not only devalue her as a human being but also devalues the process of procreation that is so taxing to the woman. Ortner aptly observes that, “For it is not in giving life, but risking life that humans are raised above the animals, that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings life forth but to that which kills.”

In conclusion, Benedict and Ortner’s approaches to the question of female subordination are compatible to the extent that they address several related factors that cause the situation. Some of the factors that the two writers have independently addressed include sex, war, marriage, and duties and roles. In both expositions, culture seems to take the centre stage as men use cultural establishments to bring about their hold on superiority status in their societies. To this end, the two argue that female subordination is a universal practice as evidenced by its widespread in many cultures around the world. Ortner, on her part argues biological determinism has nothing to do with the universal subordination that women occupy since there is no evidence to support this assertion.

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