‘gender’ is culturally relative

“Some women were as tall as men or taller, of athletic build, and with as powerful a musculature as males. The development of their breasts and hips was scanty. Neither did they show ‘feminine’ qualities of temperament. They behaved in a fiery and aggressive manner, and enjoyed adventure. Yet they were by no means devoid of strong maternal impulses and sexual desire for the male.” Charlotte Wolff writes about Margaret Mead in “Bisexuality: A Study”.


Margaret Mead was an anthropologist famous for her study of primitive societies in the 1920s. Her findings informed a century of gender studies, especially with her observations on gender roles in different societies. Mead’s anthropology teaches us a great deal about the cultural relativity of ‘gender’, and how the meaning and status accorded to ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ differ across the world. Patriarchy is not universal.

Excerpt from Charlotte Wolff’s “Bisexuality: A Study“:

In Bali, for example, both sexes looked very much alike. Some of the men were small, slender, with no specific muscular development. But they were proud of their maleness, and, as a rule, heterosexual, as was expected of them. In her book Male and Female (1949), Mead emphasized that the Balinese male would look feminine to us, but our criteria of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ were inoperative among the Balinese and other ‘primitive’ groups. The same holds good for the female. Some women were as tall as men or taller, of athletic build, and with as powerful a musculature as males. The development of their breasts and hips was scanty. Neither did they show ‘feminine’ qualities of temperament. They behaved in a fiery and aggressive manner, and enjoyed adventure. Yet they were by no means devoid of strong maternal impulses and sexual desire for the male.

… In small and primitive communities, life was streamlined and sexual roles defined. But there were considerable differences between tribes in their assignment and appreciation of sex roles. In most of them, the place of the woman was very high, if not equal or even superior to that of the man. But there can be no doubt about the manifestations of bisexuality in a number of the tribes in their customs, beliefs, and educational system. In one of the tribes of New Guinea, boys and girls were treated alike. Boys developed the same tenderness towards babies as girls and their manners were wholly ‘feminine’. Although the boys had to leave their ‘bisexual’ world at the onset of puberty in their early teens, nostalgia for ‘womanhood’ remained with them for good. But the men who performed their initiation ceremony watched over them and forbade any indulgence in their former habits. Homosexuality was strictly forbidden. Yet with many of the youngsters, it became an irresistible need which they pursued secretly.

In other ‘primitive’ societies Margaret Mead met individuals who did not follow the sexual stereotype. They experienced sensations, interests and attitudes which should be those of the opposite sex. And if their sense of identity was strong enough, they expressed them in spite of the rules of the community. Their sexual identity clashed with their gender identity which made them self-conscious. They felt out of touch with the great majority of their tribe. Although the latter conformed in day-to-day living with their sexual roles, their underlying bisexuality found spectacular expression in initiation ceremonies. Mead ascribed this phenomenon to men’s envy of the female sex. The male of these tribes suffered from a basic insecurity:

The underlying structure of the initiatory cult … provides such cogent counterpoint to our Western ideas of the relationship between the sexes. In our occidental view of life, woman, fashioned from Adam’s rib, can, at most, strive unsuccessfully to imitate man’s superior powers and higher vocations. The basic theme of the initiatory cult is, however, that women, by virtue of their ability to make children, hold the secrets of life… Men’s role is uncertain, undefined, and perhaps unnecessary … Men can get the male children away from the women, brand them as incomplete, and themselves turn boys into men. Sometimes more overtly, sometimes less, these imitations of birth go on, as the initiates are swallowed by the crocodile that represents the men’s group, and come out newborn at the other end, as they are housed in wombs or fed on blood, fattened, hand-fed and tended by male ‘mothers’. Behind the cult lies the myth that in some way all this is stolen from the woman … Men owe their manhood to a theft.

[…]

In her studies of primitive tribes in the South Sea Islands, Margaret Mead has shown that their ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are quite different from those of the Western world.

Wolff, Charlotte. Bisexuality: A study. London; New York: Quartet Books, 1979.

Charlotte Wolff (30 September 1897 – 12 September 1986) was a German-British physician whose writings on lesbianism and bisexuality were influential early works in the field. She was made a Fellow of the British Psychological Society in 1941.

Featured Image: Grounded Parents

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