6 The Anthropological Examination of Gender and Sex

Written by Amanda Zunner-Keating, Lukas Daniels, Angelica Alvarado, Brandon Cho, Meghan Matuszeski, Jessica Proctor, and Lindsay Donaldson.

Audio recording for Chapter 6 is available on Soundcloud.

6.1 How do we define “woman” and “man?”

We might start the examination of gender and sex by asking: What is the difference between a woman and a man? Let’s examine characteristics and abilities.

If we base our answer purely on the most basic, socially-constructed, and traditional definitions of “woman and man,” we can see that there are almost no differences in ability. In all cases, women can do the tasks traditionally assigned to men: women can be incredibly strong award-winning body builders, women can be globally competitive athletes (consider, for example, comparing the achievements of the US Women’s Soccer Team to the US Men’s Soccer Team), women can be life-saving doctors, women can serve as Prime Ministers and Presidents (see Germany, India, South Korea, New Zealand, etc.). There are no skills or abilities that are not possible for both genders. Men can similarly have all of the talents and abilities traditionally associated with women: men can be incredible stay-at-home parents, men can be award-winning makeup artists, and men are very frequently outstanding teachers and nurses. It may even surprise you to learn that in cases of galactorrhoea, men produce breast milk! Society is increasingly accepting the possibility of men breastfeeding their own children. While there are socially-constructed restrictions placed upon both the male and female genders, they can be transformed and are not typically connected to any biological limitations.

There is only one thing that cannot be done by all humans: the creation of life. Only people with uteruses can create and give birth to a new life. So, you may decide to answer our initial question with, “The difference between men and women is that women can give birth, but men cannot.” However, even this definition is not sufficient. While we traditionally call people with uteruses “women,” not all women have uteruses (see: MRKH syndrome), and some men have uteruses and fallopian tubes (see persistent Müllerian syndrome). If you met a person who was born without a uterus but still had the build, breasts, hair, and personality of a “traditional woman,” would you call her a man due to her lack of uterus? Likely, you would not. If a man has a penis, uterus, and an otherwise male body, would you call him a woman? Likely not. In both cases, you’d almost certainly call these people the genders that they identified as; using the pronouns that they asked you to use.

Furthermore, not all people with uteruses are able to become pregnant; so we cannot use the presence of a uterus as the defining factor of gender, either. Based on all of this knowledge, we can understand that there is almost no defining trait that universally separates the categories of “woman” and “man.” Rather, the biological characteristics of all human beings exist upon a spectrum with great variation. Culturally, we ask people to exaggerate their differences as either “male” or “female” in order to create a sense of order in an otherwise diverse world (Douglas 1966).

The traditional, largely coercive gender definitions used above are not perfect and are only used to establish a starting point.  We can further consider sex characteristics to understand human diversity.

6.2 Primary Sex Characteristics

Our biological sex is assigned to us at birth (usually by a medical professional who is present at the birth). The medical professional will observe the baby’s genitalia and then will assign “female” or “male” based on the genitalia present. In culture’s with very strict binary gender definitions, a person’s gender is expected to correspond to their biological sex. So, when a doctor observes a baby’s penis, the doctor will assign “male” to the child and the child’s parents will then expect him to have male characteristics. But anthropologists know that male and female characteristics are learned and taught throughout childhood and are, in no way, connected to specific genitalia.

Medical professionals and laypeople alike typically determine a person’s sex (and, therefore gender) based on 3 characteristics that we call “the primary sex characteristics (Guest).” The primary characteristics are:

  1. Genitalia: The vagina or penis.
  2. Chromosomes: Carriers of DNA, typically a person has xx (female) or xy (male) chromosomes.
  3. Gonads: Organs that produce reproductive cells (eggs or sperm). Testes or ovaries.

We commonly assume that all people are born with sets of genitalia, chromosomes, and gonads that are all consistent for the same biological sex. But, in reality, variation does exist.

Consider the following statistics from the Intersex Society of North America:

  • 1/1000 people are born with xxy chromosomes (see Klinefelter syndrome). Ask yourself: if someone has two xx’s and one y chromosome, which biological sex would you assign that person?
  • 1/6000 people are born with vaginal agenesis. In this case, the person is born with neither a vagina nor a penis. Typically, medical professionals will perform surgery to build a vagina. Which biological sex would you assign a person without neither a penis nor a vagina?
  • 1/10,000 people have adrenal hyperplasia. Adrenal hyperplasia leads to variations in hormone levels and may cause a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics to be ambiguous, or the opposite of what was expected (for example: a person with xx chromosomes may appear to have a penis due to adrenal hyperplasia). How would you determine a person’s sex in this case?

In each of these cases, people fall outside of the normal expectations for biological sex. In reality, we cannot fit everyone into two distinct categories which demonstrates the fact that biological sex is not so clear. Those three examples are only a few among the many, many conditions within which a person can be born (there are more, but we cannot list them all here).

Ask yourself: Why haven’t I heard more about these conditions? Why don’t we talk more about the exceptions to the rules? We have been effectively conditioned to assume that all people “should” fit into the categories of male or female. This is how our culture is structured and, largely, how it functions. When people fall outside of these two categories, we work hard to utilize feelings of shame to keep their conditions hidden from the public eye. Then, when all who fall outside of traditional categories are hidden from public view, we can continue to pretend that everyone fits into two categories. In reality, variations occur naturally and not everyone fits neatly into two distinct categories of sex.

6.3 Secondary Sex Characteristics

When you meet most people for the first time, you do not immediately look at their genitalia. And, you likely never observe anyone’s chromosomes. So how, then, do you determine a person’s sex upon meeting them? We typically base our opinion of someone’s sex (and, therefore, their gender) on what we call “secondary sex characteristics”. There are countless secondary characteristics that we attach to sex and gender (Guest) but we’ll only talk about a handful of these in order to illustrate a point.

  • Body Hair: We expect females and males to have different amounts of hair on different parts of their bodies. In Western culture, we expect women to have no leg or armpit hair but to have long hair on their heads. Of course, the vast majority of women naturally grow leg and armpit hair. So, when a woman strives to conform to body hair expectations, she actively removes her hair by waxing, lasering, or shaving, etc. In contrast, the traditional, Western expectation asserts that men should have hair on their legs and armpits but not to have long hair on their heads. So, because men’s hair naturally grows long, they often conform to Western society’s expectations by getting frequent haircuts. There is nothing biological about these expectations: Men’s’ hair naturally grows long, and women naturally grow hair on their legs and armpits. But, we culturally pretend that it’s actually unnatural for people not to conform to these expectations in order to pressure individuals to perform and reinforce these cultural ideas. These are not biological differences; they are cultural expectations (and people may choose to conform to these expectations, we may feel pressure to conform to them, or we may choose not to conform to them).
  • Pitch of Voice: We expect males to have deeper pitch of voice than females. But, as you likely already understand, there is a great deal of variation, and, pitch of voice is largely a learned behavior. It’s possible for a woman to have a deeper voice than a man, but, if she feels like society doesn’t prefer the pitch of her voice then she likely puts in the effort to change her voice.
  • Breast Size: We expect females to have larger breasts than males. But, it’s not uncommon for a male to have larger breasts than a female. In this case, people may feel pressure to conform more clearly to gendered cultural expectations; women may opt for surgery to increase their breast size while men with larger natural breasts might opt for surgery to decrease their breast size. Women may purchase and wear push up or padded bras that transform their body shape, while men may wear undergarments that restrict their upper body. In either case, it’s not a biological difference that establishes the difference in sex/gender but, rather, it’s a cultural performance.
  • Height/Build: In Western culture, we typically expect women to be shorter and leaner than men. Of course, this is absolutely not always the case and women can easily be taller or less lean than men. In these cases, people may feel pressure to wear or avoid shoes that increase their height (depending upon their assigned gender). Similarly, women may opt for plastic surgery or diets to transform their body shape to appear to be more lean. Both men and women are likely to engage in workout routines to target specific body parts that enhance their gendered appearance. In these cases, the transformations are cultural and not biological.

When you consider all of the secondary characteristics that inform our opinion of sex and gender, you can understand that people rarely fall clearly into one of the two categories. In reality, most people fall somewhere on the spectrum between constructed masculinity and constructed femininity. Our bodies exist in a biological state that may or may not conform to our gender identity and, throughout our lifetime, we may choose to conform to gender expectations to varying degrees. A person’s gender is, in no way, biologically attached to their sex (but we still may feel pressure to conform to social expectations).

6.4 What is gender?

Gender is an identity that is expressed through performance. Much like sex, gender is typically assigned to us at birth (although not all people identify with the gender or sex that was assigned to them at birth). We are typically expected to properly perform our genders throughout our lifetime; we learn how to perform our genders through negative and positive reinforcement from friends, family, politicians, celebrities, medical professionals, religious leaders, and more.

We perform our genders in all areas of our life:

  • Every day, we put clothing on our bodies that shows others our gender identity
  • Some people paint their faces with makeup in order to show their gender identity (consider: we might contour, get face injections, super glue eyelashes to our eye lids, and have eyebrows tattooed on our faces all in an attempt to perform a particular gender identity)
  • We buy undergarments that shape our bodies in gender-specific ways (consider spanx, bras, binders, etc.)
  • We speak with intonations and use language that is considered to reflect our gender identities
  • We may seek out hobbies and interests that are expected for our genders
  • We may seek out careers that are expected for our genders, etc.

Anthropologists (and all social scientists) closely examine the way that our gender performances reflect the ideologies of our societies. For example, we may expect a woman to wear white on her wedding day because our religious history causes us to value sexual purity in women, but we do not ask the same of a man on his wedding day (which reveals the fact that we don’t require sexual purity in men). We may ask men to serve in the military because we value strength, power, and the use of force in our culture, but we don’t ask this of women (which reveals that we expect women to be passive in a society). Throughout the coming lessons and assignments, we’ll closely examine gender roles, performances, and how they reflect each culture’s overall values and ideologies.


6.5 Rebecca Gibson Studies the impact that gender performance has upon the human skeleton

Written by Lukas Daniels. Edited by Ken Seligson, Amanda Zunner-Keating, Lisa Matthies-Barnes, and Laurie Solis.

Bioarchaeology is the study of how humans live by examining biological remnants and associated material culture (or, the material items that humans use and interact with). This strategy is beneficial for anthropologists as it provides a more holistic view of the human experience. For example, Dr. Rebecca Gibson, a bioarchaeologist, studies skeletons and corsets to determine how people used them and their impact on human physiology and sociocultural norms and expectations. While long-term, frequent corseting does result in skeletal deformation it does not alter life expectancy (Gibson 2015).  Corseting practices are important to study because – according to Gibson’s research – women of all socioeconomic statuses could and did participate throughout their lifespans (Gibson, 2015).

Through her research and pedagogy, Gibson influences current and aspiring anthropologists to dig deeper into the intersections between identities and agency. Anthropologists use the word, “agency” to refer to a “person’s ability or perceived ability to make choices regarding their own behaviors”(Gibson, 2020: 3) and one’s identity is formed by what is expected of us and what we do (Gibson, 2020, 40).  Gibson’s work unwraps the traditional historical understanding of a cultural phenomenon to show the bigger picture of what was happening. For instance, in Dr. Gibson’s book “The Corseted Skeleton: A Bioarchaeology of Binding” she points out that even though corsets are seen as erotic and scandalous, they were the undergarment of choice throughout Europe during the mid 18th to the early 19th century (Gibson 2015). Similar to Western culture today where it is scandalous to not wear a bra, during the height of corsetry, it was scandalous to not wear a corset.

Dr. Gibson highlights the theories that are commonly addressed in anthropology including liminality (moments in life when we exist in between two different identities or life stages) and embodiment (when human beings align their physical bodies to society’s ideal expectations). Gibson addresses both liminality and embodiment in her research by closely examining Western gender norms through popular media. She has published three books and is in the process of publishing two more. She has also published over twenty peer-reviewed articles. On topics ranging from the bioarchaeology of corseting to the human desire to have sex with robots.

Gibson’s first book “Desire in the Age of Robots and AI – An Investigation in Science Fiction and Fact” was published in 2019. This book is about the human desire for companionship and examines the ways that we create robots to fulfill our desires of intimacy in an increasingly isolated Western society.

Her second published book “The Corseted Skeleton: A Bioarchaeology of Binding” was published in 2020. The book includes research from her Ph.D. dissertation, which focused on corseting practices between 1700 and 1900 CE. She examined skeletons from St. Bride’s Church in London and compared them to examples and reports of corseting from multiple museums across Europe. She highlights the importance of acknowledging agency when studying history as modern perceptions often simplify the past. For example, the common thought that a woman wears a corset to appear sexy, denies agency to the person being studied and assumes that there was no choice involved (Gibson, 2020; 34 & 37).

Gibson is a Jewish, bi-sexual, disabled individual, and considers herself to be a “non-traditional” student (Personal Communication, September 9, 2021). Gibson is not unfamiliar with the challenges faced by college students which leads Gibson to work actively for equity and fair treatment within academia and the field of anthropology.

6.6 Ancient and Modern Cultures Challenge Our Preconceived Notions of Gender

Adapted from “Beliefs” written by Angelica Alvarado. Edited by Amanda Zunner-Keating, Oscar Hernandez, Ben Shepard, and Jenny Sime.  

Elisa Mandell’s, “A New Analysis of the Gender Attribution of the ‘Great Goddess’ of Teotihuacan” argues that historians, anthropologists, and other social scientists should avoid gender labels when we try to understand the culture and art of ancient societies that perceived gender in a different way. As our ideas surrounding the gender binary are culturally-specific and generationally-specific, we cannot always interpret the cultural expressions of people from a different time and place using our own, culturally and generationally specific lens. Mandell’s work argues that, as our cultural beliefs evolve over time our understanding of past societies similarly changes.

Elisa Mandell is an anthropologist and art historian whose work specifically analyzes symbols surrounding The Great Goddess of pre-Columbian Teotihuacan (now modern day Mexico), also known as the “Teotihuacan Spider Woman”. The Goddess has been a popular topic of research and discussion since her rediscovery in 1972 by archaeologist Alfonso Caso. With an affiliation to the study of the Olmecs and his own Mexican heritage, Caso played an integral role in uncovering this mystery. The Goddess appears on multiple surfaces, such as homes and important buildings, proudly displaying her elegant headdress covered in multicolored zigzag patterns. With her arms stretched wide and water dripping from her fingertips, she seems to represent birth and nurturing (Mandell). However, she is also surrounded by spiders, with a noticeable nose pendant and a variety of other features that continue to baffle scientists, as those attributes are always found on male deities. While some believe that this entity is actually an expression of multiple deities, Columbia University professor Esther Pasztory was the first to argue that the “goddess” may not be female at all—or male, for that matter  (Pasztory). In Pasztory’s view, we must move beyond the binary construction of gender in order to understand this deity.

Over the past fifty years, anthropologists have hotly debated the gender of this religious figure. Bouncing back and forth between male and female, history has settled on “goddess” solely due to the modern ideas of the outward appearance of this deity (Pasztory). The reasons why it’s challenging to settle on a particular gender for this deity can be attributed to our own understanding of generationally-specific and culturally-specific constructions of gender. As each anthropologist and archeologist comes, themselves, from a particular culture with a particular worldview about gender, we can see the anthropologists’ own perspective in their analysis of the evidence. And, of course, archeologists and linguists still only know a small sampling of this ancient language which limits our ability to understand the complete picture. 

Mayan societies typically clarify whether a hero or figure is meant to be masculine or feminine by sculpting the genitalia or including something telling that would help viewer determine the sex. On some occasions, when no distinction is made between male or female, the Mayans typically left some type of documentation that explained why the deity or figure’s gender was left ambiguous. However, in Teotihuacan’s case, no such distinction was made. So, how do anthropologists decide which gender the deity of Teotihuacan is? 

First, the anthropologist must ask: which genders exist? In his article for Journal for Anthropological Research, author Jay Miller writes a piece titled “Changing Ones: Third And Fourth Genders In Native North America.” Miller explains that while it is widely accepted in Western societies that there are only two genders, male and female, there are a plethora of societies that see gender as nonlinear and fluid. Consider some of the following examples: 

  • Miller’s research addresses Native American Lakota culture’s concept of two-spirit or a person who embodies both gender identities
  • Indian culture recognized a third gender called “Hijra” which can be expressed with a mix of gendered characteristics
  • Traditional, rural Albanian cultures recognized a gender called “Burneshas” whereby people who were born female can completely transition to the male identity and can subsequently benefit from male privilege present in their society (Durham 1971; Young 2000)
  • Traditional Hawaiian culture historically acknowledged a blended gender identity called “mahu: where in which, individuals can float between male and female and do not feel the need to conform to one or the other
  • The Muxe in Mexico who are a group of gay men who date heterosexual men whose masculinity is not threatened by dating a Muxe
  • The Bakla in the Philippines who are assigned the male gender at birth, but feel more comfortable living more on the “female” end of the spectrum where they are not considered homosexual

Anthropologists also consider traditional division of labor grappling with the gender of Teotihuacan (and, as the division of labor changes from culture to culture, so does Teotihuacan’s gender). Men and women had some separate roles in Teotihuacan society, and some of these roles loosely reflect our modern gender roles. But, the division of labor was culturally cemented in the 19th and early 20th century European and American societies and, during this time, the discrimination of feminine men and masculine woman became the norm (Hill 2006). These ideas, whether subtle or not, certainly affected the way that researchers looked at a Mayan society. And, of course, this biased decision-making can lead to incorrect information.

Finally, one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for anthropologists to distinguish the gender of this deity and what they represent is due to the overwhelming amount of evidence that this particular figure is both masculine and feminine. According to Columbia State University professor Esther Pasztory, symbols like the owl, the zigzag patterns in the headband, and the people underneath that all represent darkness are contradicted by the water, the spiders, and the trees that all represented a feminine energy (Pasztory). These symbols also make it increasingly hard to determine what the deity represents exactly as they have been seen depicted with some of the items some of the time but never all of them, all the time.

Columbia State University professor Esther Paszorty has researched this deity at length. While this deity remains a mysterious figure, modern anthropologists still strive to place the religious figure into a female or male category. What is clear, however, is that the divine being of Teotihuacan represented many things to the people. This deity did not need to be just the goddess of water or Earth for them, but more fittingly, represented creation and destruction, light and dark. In other words, Teotihuacan seems to be a little bit of everything, for everyone.

As modern anthropologists are able to engage with this social expansion of gender fluidity and more genders become more and more prevalent, the influence appears in the work done at these archeological sites. By embracing diverse cultural attitudes toward the construction of gender, we can better engage with the meaning behind archaeological finds. Consider, for example, the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenatan. As pharaohs of this era were believed to be divine beings, Akhenatan’s artistic representations became increasingly non-gender conforming throughout this lifetime. By presenting himself as encompassing all identities upon the gender spectrum, Akhenatan was able to approach more divine characteristics. In our modern world, Hijras in Indian culture are considered to be closer to the divine precisely because they embody both the male and female spirit (in a belief system that the divine is both male and female).

Compared to the societies mentioned thus far in this chapter, the Euro-American gender binary is uniquely strict. What can the Euro-American religious tradition tell us about these gendered ideas? According to Biblical scholar, Meg Warner, the Abrahamic idea of gender stems from the first story told —Adam and Eve. This Abrahamic story of creation purports that the first human, Adam, was created in God’s image and that a second gender was created after. Interestingly enough, Warner argues that the Hebrew word used (a-d-m) was roughly translated to “Adam” in English, but stems from the word adamah which means “earth”; leaving Adam, essentially, genderless (Warner 2019). As the majority of anthropological research was, at first, steeped in the European colonial traditions that placed people, religions, and cultural practices on a hierarchical scale, it’s understandable that this strict gendered binary was applied in archeological research and interpretation. But, by engaging with a more complete spectrum of gender identity allows modern archaeologists and anthropologists the opportunity to interpret cultural beliefs more accurately.

6.7 Sexual Dimorphism

Biologists and anthropologists use the term “sexual dimorphism” to refer to the biological differences between two sexes. Compared to much of the animal kingdom, humans actually have an exceptionally low degree of sexual dimorphism. Consider these two examples:

  • Male gorillas are naturally twice the size of female gorillas. Identifying male and female gorillas can be quite easy, whereas human males are certainly not twice the size of female humans.
  • Female peacocks are primarily brown and white while male peacocks are bright blue with colorful, decorative feathers. Of course, human males and females are not all entirely different colors.

If you were to compare the naked bodies of a human male and female, you may be able to find two bodies with very few differences. They could be the same height with the same breast size and shape with their genitalia being the only observable difference.

Because of our relatively low number of sexual differences, human cultures have evolved over time to exaggerate the differences between male and female (Douglas 5) in order to create the cultural idea that the two categories are absolute, natural, and biological. Throughout this textbook (and throughout this course), we’ll examine the construction of sex, gender, and sexuality in order to understand the cultural values that these concepts are intended to reinforce. At this point, if you understand that gender is not biological and that sex is not always clear, then you are on track in the course.

As you may already understand, the human mind strives to create categories of things that are not naturally there. This is a unique characteristic of humanity: we strive to create categories of “good and bad” and of “better or worse” (Douglas 1966) and we strive to categorize people into nationality, gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc.; all of these categories are social constructs but they still impact our lives in a very real and tangible way. Our minds feel the most at ease when we can categorize concepts, ideas, and people, but these categories are limited.

Turn to the example of the platypus to demonstrate how the natural world does not always conform to our human-created categories. Typically, mammals give live birth while birds and reptiles lay eggs. However, the platypus is an animal that has mostly mammalian characteristics but also lays eggs. So, we call it a “mammal” in spite of the fact that it doesn’t conform to all of the mammalian characteristics. This is only one example of how the natural world does not conform to our categories and expectations. Humanity is full of exceptions to the rules that we create in our cultures.

6.8 Sang-He Lee examines sexual dimorphism in the fossil record

Written by Brandon Cho, Jessica Proctor, and Amanda Zunner-Keating. Edited by Jaenelle Uy and Amanda Zunner-Keating. 

Sang-He Lee is a renowned paleoanthropologist who has studied both in Seoul, South Korea and in the United States. Her work links humanity’s biological mechanisms and evolution with its cultural development to more thoroughly explain what makes us human. Her acclaimed bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, combines cutting-edge science with cultural anthropology to reshape the accepted views of our origins. Her research continues to challenge established views on the human lifespan, species taxonomy, and sexual dimorphism. As you know, sexual dimorphism is defined as differences between the body size of males and females of the same species, as well as differences in secondary characteristics (such as the size of the canine teeth or sagittal crest) between males and females of the same species.  Primatologists have observed that higher degrees of sexual dimorphism are present in primate species with high levels of competition for access to mates, resources and territory (such as gorillas, orangutans, baboons and some species of australopithecines).

Lee’s works range across a broad spectrum within paleoanthropology but much of her focus centers around charting the parallel nature of humanity’s cultural and biological evolution. She continues to examine our anatomical development from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic Era and references it in the context of our contemporary culture. Lee argues that closely examining the sexual dimorphism of Australopithecus aferensis (our human ancestors who lived between 3.7-3 million years ago), offers an opportunity to learn about their social behaviors and social structures. When anthropologists dive into the nature of humanity, we consider the characteristics of those to whom we are related – ancient human ancestors and modern primates – in order to draw evolutionary connections. Because sexual dimorphism is commonly associated with mating patterns and mating patterns are a driving factor in overall social behavior, closely examining the sexual dimorphism of  Australopithecus aferensis may point to the social behaviors of these ancient ancestors (especially when compared to the sexual dimorphism and mating behaviors of modern primates).

Lee explains that Australopithecus afarensis is considered (by some) to have a uniquely high level of body size variation which may be an indicator of mating and social behaviors. We can consider the biology and behavior of modern primates with a high degree of sexual dimorphism to better understand the importance of this. Specifically Lee explains, “In primates, there is a general finding of associations between monogamous species and low sexual dimorphism and between polygynous species and and high sexual dimorphism” (Lee 2005).” (Note: polygyny is the practice of one male having multiple female partners). In other words, modern primates with little difference between the sexes are more likely to have one sexual partner while primates with more noticeable sexual differences are more likely to have multiple female sexual partners per male. So, according to Lee, if our early human ancestors had high sexual dimorphism, then they likely had polygynous social structures. This would be more similar to what we see in modern gorillas and less like what we see in modern humans (ibid).

Lower levels of sexual dimorphism is generally found in primate species that are more cooperative and less competitive.  We can consider the two modern primates who are most closely related to human beings as examples. Chimpanzees are actually an exception to this rule as chimpanzees have lower levels of sexual dimorphism than gorillas and orangutans, but, chimpanzees are extremely competitive and even engage in brutal warfare with other groups.  Bonobos – who similarly have lower levels of sexual dimorphism –  are far more peaceful and negotiate dominance hierarchies with sexual encounters in many instances.  Female bonobos are often dominant over the males, which is the opposite of how the patriarchal chimpanzee society is typically organized.

Lee considers the size of the femur (large thigh bone) and the humerus (large arm bone) in fossils from Australopithecus afarensis as an indicator of possible body size. Ultimately – as Lee examples show – the sample size available of Australopithecus afarensis fossils is so small that there is no way to definitively conclude the degree to which these human ancestors were sexually dimorphic. More research is necessary in this area.

Lee’s research interests have also ventured into other branches of anthropology. Her paper, Evolutionary Trends in Sexual Dimorphism of Cranial Capacity in Pleistocene Homo, published in the Journal of Human Evolution featured her own revolutionary method of reliably estimating the degree of sexual dimorphism in samples of unknown sex (Lee 1999). Her research into species taxonomy has similarly led to significant results– functionally illustrating the lack of variation between Homo Erectus fossils, and Neanderthals and modern humans– as seen in her paper, Patterns of Skeletal Sexual Dimorphism in Human, Chimpanzee, and Gorilla (Lee, 2001).

6.9 Dána-Ain Davis examines structural gender violence

Written by Meghan Matuszeski, Lindsay Donaldson and Amanda Zunner-Keating

While anthropologists know that gender is not biologically real, it is still socially very real. Much of our society is organized around gendered categories making opportunities or resources available differently to members of different genders. When people are separated from society’s basic resources based on their identities, anthropologists call this structural violence. People experiencing structural violence suffer negative physical consequences that impact their health and well-being when they are unable to – for example – receive healthcare, healthy food or medications, education etc. Unlike direct violence, structural violence causes harm by preventing people from meeting basic needs. When one gender experiences this type of violence anthropologists call this structural gender violence. Legally forcing non-consenting women to suffer the incredibly dangerous and painful experience of childbirth by limiting access to reproductive healthcare is an example of structural gender violence. And, when we consider the role that race plays in these situations, it becomes even more complicated. 

Dána-Ain Davis is an anthropologist who primarily researches the intersections of gender, race, reproductive injustice, and welfare reform. Davis has influenced feminist ethnography with her research on prejudicial systems women endure such as inaccessible welfare programs and the medical racism Black women face when it comes to their reproductive health. The research of Davis and others consistently reflects the reality that Black women are more likely to suffer traumatic birth experiences regardless of their income level or educational level. By examining the experiences of Black women across various socioeconomic circumstances, social scientists are able to understand that race is the commonality tying these experiences together. Davis connects this problematic trend in structural violence to the history of medical racism whereby Black women were regularly experimented on without anesthesia based on the racist belief that Black people felt less pain than white people. These deeply ingrained racist beliefs cause Black women to be believed and supported less often in medical situations.

Davis’ research predominantly focuses on the lived experiences of Black women in the United States. Davis illuminates the societal inequity Black women face, such as inadequate support for welfare programs, complications as a result of domestic abuse, and discriminatory medical practices. Her publications reflect her interviews and participant observation to retell these women’s stories.

Dána-Ain Davis’s book, Battered Black Women and Welfare Reform: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, was published in 2006. In 1998, Davis interviewed and worked with residents of a battered women’s shelter to understand the hardships they endured. Many of the women qualified for government assistance to escape their abusive partners or support a child with health complications. Of the twenty-two women she interviewed at the shelter, thirteen were Black. And yet, these same women were offered resources at a disproportionately lower rate than their white peers.

This research highlights the reality that race is an integral factor for survivors of domestic abuse. Davis wrote, “Essentially permission has been extended to case-workers to discourage people from applying for or continuing to receive assistance. In order to receive whatever meager resources they can secure, women are subjected to various degrees of humiliation and degradation in their interactions with institutional personnel” (Davis, 2006). Government assistance policies, Davis argues, imply that applicants are undeserving, which exacerbates the harm to already vulnerable women.

Dána-Ain Davis’s work shines a light on previously ignored social issues. It is undeniable how vital Dána-Ain Davis’ research on reproductive injustice, race, gender, and welfare is. It is integral that we uplift her anthropological work because her contributions are critical to understanding the human experience.

Chapter 6 Bibliography

  • “Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020, pp. 9–69.
  • Caspari, Rachel, and Sang-Hee Lee. “Older Age Becomes Common Late in Human Evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 27 July 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC503716/.
  • Collier, Jane F. “Women In Politics.” Woman, Culture, and Society, by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, Stanford Univ. Press, 2006, pp. 89–96.
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