Introduction

What is meant by the "status" of men and women in cultures around the world? Anthropologists do not agree on what the relative status of the two sexes means in the abstract nor do they agree on how to measure it. Does equal status mean "equal" rights for men and women in society? Some argue that the key to status is the relative power and authority of men and women and the roles of both sexes in decision-making, while others say it refers to how a particular society values the qualities that are defined as masculine versus those defined as feminine. Still others look to the work that men and women do and ask if it is equally valued. And this, in turn, leads some to question whether separate can also be equal. Others try to gauge if men and women have equal rights to live their lives as they see fit. Do women have personal autonomy and do they fully participate in the institutions of their society at large or are they barred from public life and primarily confined to the domestic sphere? Still others suggest that the regulation of sexual access to females is the key to their status. Is divorce equally available to women and men? Is there a double standard in the premarital and extramarital sexual activities of men and women, that is, do men have more sexual freedom than women?

Do all of these conditions co-vary? Do women have equal rights to men in some areas of life but not others? For example, do they have the right to inherit property but no say over whom they marry? Do women enjoy the same sexual freedom as men but have little influence on political decisions? Research suggests that these areas are not always related and that status does vary from one sphere to another. In fact, some researchers insist that so many elements comprise women's status that we cannot generalize about "low-status" and "high-status" societies (Quinn, 1977). Nevertheless, here we will take a broad overview and suggest that in some societies women's status is high in many spheres of life, while in others it is not (Whyte, 1978).

In any discussion of gender status, two central questions are whether male dominance is universal and whether female-dominant societies have ever existed. Today, with very few exceptions, social scientists see male dominance as widespread but certainly not universal, and nearly all researchers have abandoned the idea that in the distant past matriarchies—societies controlled by women—flourished. A consensus is emerging that sexual inequality ranges from societies characterized by extreme male dominance to ones in which true equality exists between the sexes (Hendrix, 1994).

The reader will notice in the sections that follow that theories regarding status are differentially applied. That is, it is women's status, not men's status, that is seen as problematic and therefore requires explanation. The implicit assumption is that male status does not vary a great deal cross-culturally but that women's status fluctuates widely. The issue of cultural variation is crucial. Why in some societies do women have few rights and little influence, while in others their rights are equal to those of men?

In analyzing sexual stratification, social scientists face two basic issues: (1) how to measure the relative status of males and females in a given society, and (2) what are the determinants of their relative status (Schlegel, 1977)? Scholars do not agree on how to measure sexual inequality. What are the exact dimensions of female status and power and how is it to be gauged vis-à-vis male status and power? One methodological problem is that most studies try to determine women's status without measuring women's status and influence relative to men's status and influence (Hendrix, 1994).

Since there is no widely agreed upon standard for judging female status, two observers may evaluate women's status in the same society differently. For example, some anthropologists suggest that the Inuit (Eskimo) are a clear case of a male-dominant society, while others argue that Inuit gender roles are balanced and complementary (Bonvillain, 2001; Briggs, 1974). Here the issue of ethnocentric pronouncements arises. Is women's status in other societies being evaluated by using the standards of one's own culture? Judgments about women's status in other societies may be colored by the concerns and goals of anthropologists as well as their own socially constructed views of what constitutes superiority and inferiority. Because women have different roles than men, does that automatically imply they are inferior roles? Separate but equal may be meaningful in some societal contexts, even if it is not in many Western cultures.

In many societies, however, the clear differentiation of roles for each sex does imply ranking. One way to gauge if such ranking exists is the reaction to crossing gender-role boundaries. If women take on men's roles, are they admired, even ambivalently? Why are men who take on women's roles ridiculed? The case of the "tomboy" and the "sissy" in American society is illustrative. Girls who exhibit predilections for sports and other "boyish" activities may be admired for their skills, or their behavior may be dismissed as "just a stage" that they will grow out of. But sissy (read, girlish) behavior in boys is greeted with no such equanimity. Boys are usually actively discouraged from such behavior; they may be teased by their peers and a source of worry to their parents. These different reactions to the crossing of gender-role boundaries likely indicate a hierarchy with the roles of one sex valued less than those of the other sex.

Before we consider theories that deal with women's status cross-culturally, we should distinguish between correlational statements and causal statements in such theories. Correlations do not "explain" female status; rather, they suggest what societal elements or institutions co-occur with high or low female status (Hendrix & Hossain, 1988). For example, exclusive men's houses tend to be found in societies in which female status is low. However, men's houses may not cause the status of women to be inferior. Rather, another factor, perhaps population pressure, may explain the presence of both phenomena. So it is well to bear in mind that while some theories attempt to explain differential status between males and females, others only seek institutional correlates of high or low status.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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