Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality, by Peggy Reeves Sanday (emeritus, anthro, University of Pennsylvania), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, originally 1981

“The recurrent problem of civilization is to define the male role satisfactorily enough . . . so that the male may in the course of his life reach a solid sense of irreversible achievement, of which his childhood knowledge of the satisfactions of childbearing has given him a glimpse.” ----Margaret Mead

Our post-gender society now aspires to be a post-sex society as well. That is, as gender stereotypes have been rightfully questioned, and in many cases discarded, what has emerged is a feeling that sexual difference itself is a conceptual offense. Philosopher Sylviane Agacinski calls this feeling “the nostalgia for the one”: the feeling that unity, equality, even peace will be unobtainable if we are forever sexually differentiated as a species. As conceptual offenses often elide into becoming moral offenses—yes, even in a secular society, there is a secular morality about which adherents feel no less strongly than religious adherents—this is a development that bears closer scrutiny.

I am no disinterested party. As a woman, I believe the post-sex aspiration is a Trojan horse for my sex, the sex with two X chromosomes. And as a feminist, I find it deeply ironic that many who champion this aspiration self-identify as feminists. A post-sex society is, in the end, I argue, a specifically post-female society. It is by no means a post-male society. But that argument is an essay for a subsequent issue of SquareTwo.

In the meantime, some groundwork must be laid first. And that is where the classic work of anthropologist and ethnographer Peggy Reeves Sanday becomes helpful. She suggests that there are in fact human societies in which sexual difference does not lead to inequality between the sexes, and that unity and peace can be had between men and women. This assertion should be of great interest to the LDS, for whom sex is viewed as an eternal distinction integrally associated with divinity itself.

Our primary text for this task will be Sanday’s 1981 classic, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality, though we will supplement that tome with excerpts from other pieces she has written, as well.

Sanday begins by noting that since sexual difference is ubiquitous, societal sex-role plans are, as well:

”Confronted with the obvious, generally accepted, but frequently ignored fact that babies come out of females and female genitals differ from male genitals, people seek to solve the puzzle of sex differences by sorting out how and why the differences came about, what is to be done about the differences, and how the two kinds of people resulting from the differences are to relate to one another and to their environment.” (3-4)

Unlike other anthropologists, she asserts, however, that “Male dominance is not an inherent quality of human sex-role plans . . . male dominance is a response to pressures that are most likely to have been present relatively late in human history.” (4)

Indeed, noting that the power to give life is usually viewed as the power of women, and the power to take life is usually viewed as the power of men, and that both powers are important in any society, the more pressing questions become for Sanday, “1) Why do some societies develop a symmetric as opposed to an asymmetric valuation of these two powers?, and 2) How does symmetric or asymmetric valuation affect the secular power of men and women?” (6) Importantly, Sanday asserts there will be “a congruence between the gender of a people’s creator gods, their orientation to the creative forces of nature, and the secular expression of male and female power.” (6)

Since Sanday believes that asymmetry arrived later in human history, she includes in her conceptual framework an examination of how imbalance arises: “When a people combats outside influences, the power of women may disintegrate as new metaphors for sexual identities replace the old and a new sexual division of labor give men readier access to strategic resources . . . The case studies of the decline in female power . . . establish a causal relationship between depleting resources, cultural disruption, migration, and the oppression of women.” (8) That is, such societies “may become heavily dependent on the aggressive acts of men.” (11) From an LDS perspective, it will be interesting to note whether such an increasingly unfriendly external and environmental context precedes—or follows from—greater imbalance between the sexes. Sanday notes that “In cases of severe social stress or cultural disruption . . . men band together and turn aggression against women”—an obviously unhealthy development for any society, which may in turn have negative ramifications for its external context. (9)

Also of note from an LDS perspective is Sanday’s idea that “The reasons peoples give for their afflictions provide a starting point for investigating dominance-subordinance relations between the sexes,” specifically mentioning the Garden of Eden story in this regard. When a society decides the origin of affliction is womankind, the stage is set for profound imbalance between the sexes. Relatedly, Sanday asserts that “Whether the creator is conceived in masculine or feminine terms has important consequences for the evolution of the authority relationship between the sexes.” (16)

Sanday suggests that societies can be classified along two inter-related continua: 1) the degree to which the sexes are segregated in daily life, and 2) the degree to which decisionmaking power is vested in one sex. While segregation does not necessarily lead to the vesting of one sex with the power to make decisions, the latter only exists in the context of sexual segregation, according to her survey of 156 tribal societies.

Sanday goes on to suggest there are two general overarching orders among human societies: diarchies and male dominance. [1] What is meant by “diarchy” here is a male-female system "of shared powers and oscillations in control, structured by a doctrine of interdependence and mutuality" (Hoskins, quoted here). One would expect the “opposite” of male dominance to be female dominance, but Sanday’s analysis suggests this is not the case. The opposite of male dominance is, apparently, peace and cooperation between men and women. As Sanday describes this type of diarchic order, “the [sexual] difference is balanced by their equal capacity to do good” (17).

While reading the book, I jotted down every time Sanday mentioned particular characteristics of these two sexual-social orders. While there is certainly a spectrum between pure diarchy and pure male dominance, it was interesting how many of the characteristics seemed to form an inter-linked system, so that it would be far easier to find societies nearer one or the other pole than societies in the middle.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of these two sexual-social orders, as Sanday describes them, before discussing the implications of her analysis.

Signs that a male dominance sexual-social order is in place:

Interestingly, Sanday notes that there are two variants of male dominance systems; one where male dominance is completely and viciously real, and the other where males pretend there is male dominance though in reality women still have some meaningful power and voice. Even so, the characteristics of both these variants tend to be fairly similar.

Diarchic systems, on the other hand, have quite different characteristics:

Signs that a diarchic sexual-social order is in place:

These lists offer much food for thought, and I will be using Sanday’s work in my upcoming research projects. But for the purposes of SquareTwo’s readership, there are some interesting observations to be made.

First, the number of male dominance societies is greater than the number of diarchic societies in the fallen world of mortal life. This is perhaps to be expected, since we know that the paths of peace are much more narrow than the paths of misery (Matthew 7:13-14).

Second, we see a clear differentiation in theology between the two types of societies. Male dominance societies have only male creator gods, and women are considered to be to blame for evil and affliction in the world. Diarchic societies have male-female couples as creator gods, and insist that women are not to blame for the evil and affliction in the world. That should be of special import to LDS readers, since our own theology matches that associated by Sanday with diarchy. As Sanday puts it, “By articulating how things were in the beginning, people supply more than a logic for sexual life-styles—they make a basic statement about their relationship with nature and about their perception of the source of power in the universe. This relationship, and its projection into the sacred and secular realms, hold the key for understanding sexual identities and corresponding roles . . . How the creator is conceived tells us something about where people locate the major source of power in the universe.” (57) In diarchic societies, the major source of power is the partnership between men and women.

Third, in male dominance societies, marriage is hierarchical, with military metaphors abounding as if the male-female relationship in marriage were some type of perpetual war. And, of course, the proper outcome of marriage in these societies is that the male is conqueror, and the woman properly in subjection to him. The sexual difference, then, is a rock of offense in male dominance cultures, for what is different must by definition be unequal, and what is unequal must be subordinated. Thus the "natural" reaction to enduring difference in male dominance societies is battle. Heterosexual marriage cannot help but be seen in such societies as an occasion for the expression of dominance of male over female.

In diarchic societies, by contrast, marriage is a peaceful and joyous joining of the powers of male and female from which springs all life. Indeed, marriage between men and women is the very sacrament of peace—the polar opposite of war. As Sanday explains (189), when men and women cooperate in sacred joint ritual such as marriage, and when this marriage is viewed as both the man and the women giving something to each other, and both the man and the women taking or receiving something from one another, this type of marriage symbolizes the triumph of life over death, and the victory of peace over war (~189).

Fourth, there is a huge disparity between the quality of life and self-conception of a woman in a male dominance society in contrast to a diarchic one. In a male dominance society, domestic gender-based violence is prevalent, as are sexual assault, rape and gang rape. Women are purposefully excluded from decision-making, and may even be considered less intelligent than men. Women’s bodies will be strictly controlled by men in these societies, even if such control results in the death and suffering of women. Ironically, these same bodies that are so important to control, are also seen as polluted and polluting, as well as disgusting and dangerous. The more satisfying personal relationship for a man in such a society will be the male brotherhood bond with an equal, not a male-female relationship with an inferior. And, theologically, “[a] woman can never have her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God, an experience freely available to every man and boy of her culture” (215). She cannot partake of the divine character, since the divine is male. The piece de resistance, of course, is woman's identity as the original transgressor who brought evil into the world.

In diarchic cultures, women are not as physically insecure, not as disenfranchised, not as reviled, not as inferior, not as controlled. Sex is not a commodity, and neither is a woman's body. She is as fully of divine heritage and as fully virtuous as a man.

Fifth, Sanday’s work suggests that there is a relationship between a worsening environmental context and the character of male-female relations. We have already noted that according to Sanday, male dominance societies tend to suffer greater food insecurity (including famine), higher levels of conflict and war, and are more likely to be forced to migrate due to resulting insecurity. (133-135) “[Historical cases] suggest a causal relationship between scarce resources and the oppression of women.” (136) As a greater sense of threat emerges, both the environment and women will be the subject of increasing control efforts by male dominance societies. Diarchic societies, on the other hand, are far more likely to be found in abundant environments, where the society is not engaged in controlling, but rather preserving and working with the external environment.

This is very interesting, and begs the chicken and egg question. Did women become more subjugated because the environment grew more threatening? Or did the environment grow more threatening because women became more subjugated? It gives pause to consider Jacob chapters 2 and 3 in this light. As Nephite men began to exploit women, destructive consequences—i.e., a more threatening environment--were foretold. Because Nephite men refused to repent of their exploitation of women, but rather persisted in it, the consequences became more severe over time. But no doubt Nephite men viewed this increasingly threatening environment as justifying their maltreatment of women. Women’s maltreatment may have become a substitute for what Jacob would have viewed as the real remedy—repentance and renunciation of male dominance.

Lamentably, however, this "tradition of the fathers" of justifying what is both unjustifiable and dysfunctional can be self-perpetuating. Sanday avers, “Once a stance of control and manipulation is adopted, it is not easily abandoned. Success confirms the need to adhere to past practices. Success can also give a people a taste for more of the same.” (51) Of course, by “success” Sanday in this quote does not mean success in reversing the threatening environmental context, but only in controlling and managing its risks. And then, unfortunately, “Because they give guidance in times of need, metaphors for sexual identities persist long after the circumstances giving rise to them have changed” (56).

But Sanday is ultimately an optimist. “Adaptation to stress does not always include the subjugation of women” (185). A society can refuse to make male dominance their template. They can choose a different path, that of diarchy, with its more benevolent sequelae. “Change the cultural plot and sex roles are conceived differently. Change sex roles and the plot will change. For example, give women access to sacred roles and much else will change—our concept of the sacred, the standard interpretation of the Bible, our conception of “human rights,” and so on” (12).

Joseph Smith changed the theological plotline for our faith community. Envisioning the Christian God as a married male-female couple, and celebrating our first Mother Eve as a woman of the highest courage and wisdom gave the LDS a fork in that broadway of male dominance-created historical misery—a fork that could take us to a straight and narrow path leading to happiness . . . if we had the courage and determination to change our cultural plotline to fit our theological one . . . if we mustered the will to live diarchy on earth as it is lived in heaven.

The philosopher Will Durant expressed best where that fork in the road leads, I think:

Many years I lost happiness. I sought it in knowledge, and found disillusionment. I sought it in writing and found a weariness of the flesh. I sought it in travel, and my feet tired on the way. I sought it in wealth, and I found discord and worriment. And then one day, at a little station out on a wooded cliff near the sea, I saw a woman waiting in a tiny car, with a child asleep in her arms. A man alighted from a train, walked to her quickly, embraced her, and kissed the child gently, careful lest he should awaken it. They drove off together to some modest home among the fields, and it seemed to me that happiness was with them.



[1] Sanday suggests there are also a very few “dual sex” systems (see discussion p. 86f, also p 116), where there is strong segregation, but not inequality. These societies have completely separate systems—for example, a queen for the women and a king for the men. Unfortunately, the women had to be celibate to be equal, as in historical Dahomean culture. Each sex manages its own affairs; there are separate male and female political and religious institutions. Equality is thus based on strict sexual apart-ness. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2015) "The Diarchic Road Not Yet Taken: A Book Review of Sanday's Female Power and Male Dominance," SquareTwo, Vol. 8 No. 1 (Spring 2015), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerSanday.html, accessed <give access date>.

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