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A definition of “woman” that applies cross-culturally, one that includes the definitions offered by societies that are not part of our own Western/industrial tradition, will inevitably include some allusions to female physiology and to cultural constructions that include women’s reproductive role, spiritual role (or its absence), domestic role, work role, and role in the care of children, assigning varying degrees of importance to each. The definition of womanhood may or may not be related to a society’s definition of manhood, and may or may not be related to other gender categories that a society might recognize—which can be as many as five.
Furthermore, the definition of “woman” and “womanhood,” when viewed from a cross-cultural perspective, will vary depending upon three variables. The first variable is the society’s recognition of the specific stages of the female life course. Societies differ in how they identify and define the physical and psychological maturational stages of a woman’s individual development. Some stages that we may readily identify in our own society (such as getting a driver’s license) do not exist or are ignored, while other developmental events are given exaggerated attention and some are of such importance that they are accorded ceremonial recognition. The second variable, the society into which the individual is born (or of which she may become a member by a choice made later in life), will provide a variety of cultural expectations, some of which every individual female member is expected to meet and some of which only a chosen few may achieve. The third variable consists of the time period in the history of a particular society in which the individual finds herself. These three variables are not necessarily independent but can interact with each other to provide the specific definition of what it means to be a “woman” for a female individual of a particular age, in a specific society, and at a particular moment in history.
The First Variable: The Life Course
In all societies, the infant’s sex is noted at birth, and in some societies, a female identity may lead to immediate infanticide. Yet often the baby is viewed as virtually neuter, in contrast to our own society, in which even the tiniest infant garments are gendered. Recognition of the individual’s gender can begin at various stages early in the life course, but by the time signs of adolescence appear, the individual has been assigned. Although some societies did not particularly note menarche or other evidences of adolescence, in many traditional societies, mere girls could only “be made into women” by means of an elaborate ritual. In these societies, only the initiated conformed to the definition of “woman.” Such ceremonies, sometimes celebrated individually at the time of menarche and sometimes celebrated for groups of girls at the approximate onset of their adolescence, took a variety of forms. Some were elaborate, involved considerable expense for the family of the girl, engaged the entire community, and took months to complete. In other societies, the observance was brief, involved only a few female relatives, and was somewhat private.
In the ceremony of the Bemba of east Africa as reported by Richards (1956), men actually had specific roles to perform in the initiation. In many other societies, men are banned from even seeing the ritual. Among the Bemba, there were tests of competence for the initiates, and it was believed that their roles as food providers would be performed with the appropriate, womanly attitude after the completion of the long, elaborate ceremony. (In contrast, our own educational system typically focuses on transmitting skills and tends to neglect training for the proper attitude toward work.) Several ceremonies performed in other traditional societies included a painful genital operation, but most female initiation rites provided instruction, often regarding sexual activity, as well as a period of seclusion during which the initiate had to observe a number of taboos. These rites were typically followed by feasting, receiving gifts and new clothes, and being declared beautiful and ready for marriage negotiations to begin.
The life course of women can be viewed as discontinuous even if no ritual activity creates a major change in what it means to be a woman. Thus the end of virginity, menarche, the arrival of children, and menopause are one and all irreversible phases of womanhood that are not only physical but also have psychological and cultural meaning. The recognition or lack of recognition a society provides for these physiologic milestones in the lives of women varies cross-culturally. Thus, for example, as reported by Meigs (1984), the Hua of Papua New Guinea were a society in which not only the physiological changes characteristic of the female life course but also culturally constructed changes without a biological basis created a fluid definition for Hua womanhood. The body of Hua women and girls were believed to be filled with a vital essence that was both polluting and to some degree dangerous to men and that was transmitted to men through each act of sexual intercourse and through the food that women handled, prepared, and served. The essence was drained from women’s bodies in the act of childbirth. Thus an older woman, the mother of several children, became as pure as a man, while aging men became impure like women. Because many older women were pure like men, they could have access to the great men’s house, which was forbidden to women and children. Unlike them, she might have participated in male activities and had access to secret male knowledge. Thus among the Hua, the meaning of womanhood was not based only on physiological changes that characterize the female life course but depended on the culturally constructed definitions assigned to these female life courses stages.
The Second Variable: Society
In many societies the definition of womanhood is shaped by the view that women are physically weaker and intellectually inferior to men, as well as spiritually underendowed. In some societies the definition must take account of the fact that women are viewed as naturally lecherous and wanton. Rape, wife abuse, and even murder are viewed as justifiable responses to these female tendencies. Women’s sexual impulses are corrupting to men and constantly threaten the honor of the family, requiring the unremitting vigilance of a brother or a husband. Women of childbearing age in such societies must be restrained by perpetual chaperonage, by the alert supervision of elder female kin, and by confinement, an enforced claustration, lived in the company of other women.
In spite of the negative valuation that was part of the definition of women in many societies, there was also evidence of envy by men. Among the Inuit of the central Arctic, women’s lives were confined to the igloo during the long winter. Unconfined, the men ranged freely from the camp to hunt and fish, yet they envied the shelter and warmth of the women’s indoor life. An attempt to imitate women that may have been based on envy was the periodic self-inflicted bleeding practiced by the men of several Melanesian societies. In a private ritual, a man would scrape his penis to induce bleeding, an imitation of women’s menstruation, which was believed to provide strength and well-being. An example of a positive valuation of women comes from the traditional Native American societies of the Gulf region, where there were separate languages for men and women and men felt the women’s language was more beautiful than their own.
Women’s Economic Role Whether or not the men of a particular society envy women, or whether or not the members of a society subscribe to a definition of womanhood that attributes inferiority to women, or whether or not members of a society have a more egalitarian view of the sexes, womanhood is inevitably defined in part by the work women perform (unlike our own society, where it would be unusual for a definition of womanhood to include references to specific vocations.) Thus among the traditional Iroquois of New York State, raising the crops upon which the people’s livelihood depended was the work of women. A man working in the gardens was either too old and too frail for male activity or he was a prisoner of war compelled to perform humiliating, inappropriate work. Thus, for example, the Iroquois “made women” out of the defeated Delaware by making them work in their gardens. Yet the productivity of the Iroquois women was revered. Female spiritual beings represented the crops, and ceremonial activity celebrated the cultivated foods provided by women, not the hunting and warfare of the men.
Competence in woman’s work was valued so highly in many traditional societies that it overshadowed sexual attractiveness in the choice of a wife. Thus, among the Iroquois and the traditional Inuit, an older competent woman might be viewed as a desirable wife for a far younger man. Productivity, diligence, and highly developed female skills were among the qualities that were accorded the privilege of being a “manly hearted woman” among the North Piegan, a Canadian Blackfoot tribe, according to Lewis (1970). Although most married women in this society served as lower or “slave wives,” the “manly hearted woman” was the “sit-by wife.” She was not masculine, as the title might suggest; instead she excelled in women’s work and was therefore an economic asset. She was the favorite wife, actively sexual and outspoken. Lower wives were beaten mercilessly for such behavior in traditional times.
As reported by Elam (1973), the traditional Hima, east African herders, further illustrate how the work women perform and their sex life define womanhood in a particular society. In traditional times, Hima girls joined the herders with their cattle outside the village. They acted as assistants to the men in activities such as milking. They were physically active and free to move about the landscape and were expected to be chaste until marriage. The wife, in contrast, was confined to the hut. Unlike girls, she was heavily clothed and her diet and lack of physical activity were intended to make her fat, which was viewed as sexually attractive. Fat and desirable, she was expected to grant sexual favors to numerous men, including her father-in-law. Unlike girls, she was forbidden to milk, bleed, or slaughter cattle. In her life as a woman, she was by definition confined, and her work consisted of making butter and curd and keeping the milk jugs clean.
Women’s Spirituality In many societies, the definition of womanhood that pertains to most of a woman’s life, the childbearing years, appears to exclude the possibility of spirituality. Thus among the traditional !Kung of southern Africa, pregnancy and lactation were viewed as incompatible with trance, since such spiritual activity could harm the unborn child or the nursing infant. In parts of North America, a woman could become a shaman, and a spiritual being would enable her to attain special powers. But in many societies only a man could be a shaman. Among the Navajo, it was believed that the evil powers of witchcraft were inaccessible to a woman of childbearing age. Thus the ability to exert spiritual power or the absence of this ability is noted in the definition of womanhood in many societies. In contrast, spiritual attributes are typically not part of a definition of womanhood in our own society.
The Third Variable: Historic Factors
A society’s definition of womanhood inevitably evolves to reflect historical changes. This is as true for our own society as it is cross-culturally. In the later twentieth century, historical changes have created a redefinition of womanhood in the Western/industrial world that is almost as dramatic as the redefinition of womanhood created by the end of colonialism and the spread of globalization in those parts of the world that are not part of our own tradition. An example of such changes is offered by Draper (1975) in her description of the !Kung of southern Africa. Their traditional way of life had continued into the mid-twentieth century, and although aware of the outside world (a world that mistakenly believed they were extinct), they had retained a traditional definition of womanhood. The women of the !Kung sustained the life of the small, migratory camps with their food-gathering activities. Each day that the women set out into the Kalahari Desert, they were successful in harvesting the vegetable foods that constituted the major portion of the !Kung diet. While collecting, the women also gathered information about the movement of animals, which they provided to the men to help them in their hunting. The hunting activities of the men, though less frequently successful than the gathering activities of the women, received a great deal of cultural attention and provided the food that was harder to obtain, made up less of the diet, and was more highly valued. Although the gathering activities of women were not accorded particular recognition, women had the right to be outspoken, and the relationship between men and women was markedly egalitarian. These traditional circumstances have been attributed to women’s economic importance. And this in turn was made possible by a benign environment, in which women were not threatened by enemy neighbors or wild animals that might have made male protection necessary. Their autonomy made possible the traditional !Kung women’s role as the “major breadwinners.”
Dramatic and rapid changes occurred when the !Kung became sedentary, living on the outskirts of the villages of herders, who now controlled the region. !Kung women became housewives. The open camps were replaced by huts which isolated women from relatives and neighbors. Their economic importance was a thing of the past, as was their autonomy. Wife abuse was now a problem. This vastly oversimplified history of the !Kung during the later twentieth century illustrates how a particular society’s definition of womanhood can undergo dramatic change. Although still living in their homeland, their new circumstances totally altered how “woman” was defined.
The definition of “woman” is only partially based on the physical traits that differentiate the sexes. Superimposed on physiological reality is the possibility that a society may recognize more than two genders. In addition, the definition a culture constructs for the term “woman” may change during different stages of the life course, for example, by not including the category “uninitiated female adolescent” as part of the definition of “woman.” Different societies also vary on which aspect of womanhood the culture stresses in its definition. Is it her economic role? Is it her maternal role? Is it her sexual role? Is it her domestic role? (For a review of the interrelationships of these factors, see Brown 1973.) Or perhaps it is her physical or mental inferiority and lack of spirituality compared to men. Historical changes can alter a society’s definition. And all of these possible aspects of a society’s definition of “woman” can be interdependent and influence each other. The cross-culturally applicable definition of any concept is inevitably complicated, but the necessary ingredients of the varied definitions can be identified.
- Brown, Judith K. 1973. The Subsistence Activities of Women and the Socialization of Children. Ethos 1: 413–423.
- Draper, Patricia. 1975. !Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts. In Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter, 77–109. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Elam, Itzchak. 1973. The Social and Sexual Roles of Hima Women: A Study of Nomadic Cattle Breeders in Nyabushozi County, Ankole, Uganda. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
- Lewis, Oscar. 1970. Manly-Hearted Women among the North Piegan. In Anthropological Essays, ed. Oscar Lewis, 213–230. New York: Random House.
- Meigs, Anna. 1984. Food, Sex and Pollution: A New Guinea Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Richards, Audrey. 1956. Chisungu: A Girls’ Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. New York: Grove.
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