Published April 21, 2020, 4:01 p.m. by Moderator


The subject of the subordination of women has been a long heated debate but there is no doubt that its origins are deeply rooted in cultural ideologies. Subordination is defined as the act of placing someone in a lower position. Since time immemorial men and women have had defined roles in the society. Subordination is expressed through powerlessness, discrimination, lack of involvement in decision making, oppression, violence, restriction in movement and emotional abuse (Sultana 8, 2019).

The anthropological status of the women in early human societies was that of a ‘helper’ who takes care of the offspring while the man was a ‘hunter’ who went to look for food in a wild and dangerous environment. The process of food gathering or hunting was a dangerous activity that was meant for men who were physically stronger than women. It was a process of socialization that defined the gender ideologies of cultures around the world. This gender ideology relegated women to a subordinate role where men dominated all levels of society (Owens 57, 2002).

This socialization has been explained by many philosophers and historians. Ortner’s argued that the subordination of women was a construct of nature. She claimed that it was nature that relegated women to a secondary role and it was futile for humans to defy nature. Her opponents on the other hand argued that her assertion was too simplistic since the reasons for subordination of women were different across different cultures. Maria Lepowski argued that there is a sole reason to explain the phenomenon and its origins were either due to cultural ideology or materialism. Ortner’s argument premises on the fact that women are biologically weaker than men hence her explanation that nature played a role in the subordination (Owens 60, 2002).

Ortner clearly fails to appreciate the existence of matrilineal societies which would mean that their existence is unnatural in Ortner’s make-believe world. Human beings have no control over nature so the social constructs created by society cannot be attributed to nature. Ortner ignores the fact that subordination only occurs within the boundaries of cultural constructs. Ortner uses the biological role of women as ‘child bearers’ to support her argument (Rayner, 2019). The fact that some communities had aspects of its social interactions controlled by women, that alone cannot be used as an affirmation of an egalitarian system where men and women are treated equally (Owens 60, 2002).

For example among the Crow Indigenous Americans, women held high positions of power. They held an honour position during the ceremonial ‘Sun Dance’. They were allowed to visit the seers, enter the holy sites, and even act as village witchdoctors. This was not the case when they were undergoing menstruation. During this period they were given a smaller horse, and could not make contact with an injured man or warrior preparing for war. In this case, on the surface it looks like the women have been elevated but this is conditional and can be withdrawn. Among the Bemba tribe, women are independent and hold high positions of power yet they still kneel when greeting men (Owens 60, 2002).

Ortner argues that women are primary care givers for children and their roles and relationships are confined to these roles, and since they are fully occupied with the children they have no time to participate in other social or political activities. She further argues that women have been complicit in their subordination. Women are powerful change agents as they are tasked with bringing up the children within those predefined social constructs. The continuation of the culture of subordination from generation to generation is a sign that women have accepted the subordination (Rayner 8, 2019).

Evolution of sex and gender

Most people confuse gender and sex. Sex can be defined as the physical characteristics that differentiate males and females while gender refers to the socialization of roles that clearly defines what is acceptable and what is not for both females and males (Reeves and Baden, 2000). There was no clear distinction between gender and sex till the 1970’s when social scientists defined the two as separate. They argued that gender was defined by cultures through the association of biological characteristics not by the actual biological characteristics. Biological anthropologists opposed that arguing that sex definitely played a part in shaping cultural roles (Moore, 2005).

Gender encompassed the social roles that society placed on males and females in addition to mythological beliefs that drove the assignment of different roles. Communities where women were most subjugated also held spiritual beliefs that accentuated femininity. In some communities women had authority and held positions of power in certain aspects of daily life. Gender is a sum of social constructs that determine how males and females act. Gender is ambiguous, its definition is fluid and continues to evolve. In early societies gender was associated with sex a ‘biological phenomenon’. Moore argues that our biological differences should not be used to assigning gender. Moore ascertains that there are many ways one can define gender in relation to sexuality but sex is usually fixed (Moore, 2005).

Moore writes even though there might be some connections between sex and gender that alone cannot be the basis to conclusively say that sex represents gender and gender represents sex. In the case of transvestites, males who dress as females, they usually assume a female persona to represent their newfound female identity. This action alone shows that gender is something that can be made and unmade which makes it distinct from sex which is biological and cannot be unmade (Moore, 2005).

Gender hierarchies usually follow three distinct characteristics; where all positions are held by men, where all the top positions are held by men and where male-female interactions favour men (Owens 60, 2002).  Gender symbolism has been used to relegate women to lower positions in the society. For example the Melanesians of New Britain relegated women to an inferior position due to the concept of ‘pollution’. Women were considered impure from puberty until they reached menopause. Women were not allowed in male designated zones because the Melanesians believe that the women will contaminate the male only areas.

The Melanesian female is therefore tasked with instigating sexual intercourse because the Melanesian men had a high fear of sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse was deemed ‘polluting’ and so sexual intercourse was done far away from the village. And this was the same for married couples too. The gender roles in the Melanesia of New Britain were different from western societies where males usually instigate sexual intercourse (Rayner, 2019).

Cultural and historical analysis of patriarchy

Patriarchy is the socialization of women to be subordinate to men. Aristotle described men as ‘energetic’ and women as ‘passive’. He extoled the biological superiority of males over females claiming that women were incapable of reasoning and could not be tasked with decision making. Males were meant to rule while women were there to be ruled.  Freud once claimed that for a woman her destiny is determined by her biology (Sultana 4, 2019).

Fredrick Engels proposed that the subordination of women begun with the emergence of the concept of ‘private property’ in his book “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. He claims that socialisation of classes begun simultaneously with that of women. Men wanted exclusive rights to property that they would eventually transfer to their children. To safeguard this inheritance they disallowed women the right to property. This was the establishment of the right of the father; patriarchy (Sultana 4, 2019).

Staunch feminists argue that patriarchy preceded private property and it is not based on economic classes but it is a battle between sexes. They consider women a marginalized class on its own. They refuse to accept the notion of patriarchy and do not believe that it is natural or that it will last. This is a far more radical approach compared to traditional feminism. Social feminists use Marxist principles to argue against patriarchy. They believe that as the world continues to evolve most of the social constructs that restrict women to certain roles will die with time. Hartman describes patriarchy as a set of social constructs motivated by material gain that men use to control women (Sultana 4, 2019).

Michael Herzfeld in his book “The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village” narrates the tale of the gender dynamics of a Cretan village. His book examines the way gender is constructed in everyday life and how masculinity is defined by actions that are considered vices by other cultures. Some of these activities include stealing sheep from each other to prove their masculinity and their friendship towards their kin, kidnapping women for brides, vengeance killings, dancing and merrymaking. It is through these ingrained cultural traditions that patriarchy is defined. Culture has structured how Glendiot men find meaning about their lives. Glendiot men are fiercely proud of their national identity whilst also revelling in the glories of being Greeks. The highland Greeks despise them but appreciate their contributions to Greece (Herzfeld, 1985).

To be considered a strong and brave Glendiot man, one had to engage in vices. Vengeance killings are driven by the poetics of manhood. A Glendiot man has to defend the honour of his kin. Glendiot men believe that the traits of the male line of the family are passed to subsequent generations. A Glendiot man who was an excellent sheep thief would have a son and a grandson with the same social status. Vengeance killings are about restoring a family’s honour. Michael writes that for a Glendiot man, the most important thing in life is to be respected by other Glendiot men and being a good person comes secondary. The Glendiot man raids to show his masculinity and the more daring the raid, the more points he scores with his peers (Herzfeld, 1985).

Religion is also one of the main causes of subordination of women. In most male dominated societies women are usually excluded from religious functions. Among the indigenous tribes of Takuma and Selknam, religion revolves around masculinity and women are objects that are used to fulfil the ritual rather than as an essential part of the ritual. The Tukano explanation of the origin of life is exclusively the role of men (Owens 62, 2002). Women are usually depicted as weak, gullible, deceitful, and selfish. In Christianity, Eve is the one who convinces Adam to eat the forbidden apple and the snake chooses her because women are easier to convince than men.

In some cultures only males are allowed to handle sacred objects as women are deemed impure. Women are usually tasked with preparing meals for the elaborate ceremonies. In Polynesia, men of higher social status roast the meat while women cook the other foods. The role of women in these ceremonies is secondary but essential for the success of the ceremony. In the northern part of California, indigenous shamans were usually women past their menopause as they were no longer deemed impure (Owens 64, 2002).


There is clear evidence that delineates gender and sex. Sex is a biological phenomenon that is controlled by nature while gender are the social constructs that are imposed on us by society. Men are taught how to be men whether that is a personal reflection of their selves or not. The Glendiot men were socialised that the only way to become a man the Glendiot way, they had to perform certain activities. It is these same social constructs that influenced how women were treated in the Glendiot society. It is gender that primarily determines our social roles not sex. Gender is fluid and a person can change their gender but not their sex. The subordination of women has been largely influenced by mythology and socialisation but it is not a reflection on the true ability of women. Patriarchy was influenced by the element of private property. In some communities women were considered property and so the men in those cultures did not respect the rights of these women.



Herzfeld, M. (1985). The Poetics of Manhood. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, p.46.

Moore, H. (2005). Anthropological theory today. Cambridge [England]: Polity Press.

Moore, H., 1999. Whatever happened to women and men? Gender and other crises in anthropology.


Rayner, M. (2019). Evaluate Ortner’s assertion that the universal subordinationof women is rooted in their association with nature. [online] Academia. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2019].

Reeves, H. and Baden, S. (2000). Gender and Development: Concepts and Definitions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2019].

Sultana, A. (2019). Patriarchy and Women’s Subordination: A Theoretical Analysis. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2019].


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