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12.4: Gender Variability and Third Gender

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  • Some of the most compelling evidence against a strong biological determination of gender roles comes from anthropologists, whose work on preindustrial societies demonstrates some striking gender variation from one culture to another. This variation underscores the impact of culture on how females and males think and behave.

    Margaret Mead (1935) was one of the first anthropologists to study cultural differences in gender. In New Guinea she found three tribes—the Arapesh, the Mundugumor, and the Tchambuli—whose gender roles differed dramatically. In the Arapesh both sexes were gentle and nurturing. Both women and men spent much time with their children in a loving way and exhibited what we would normally call maternal behavior. In the Arapesh, then, different gender roles did not exist, and in fact, both sexes conformed to what Americans would normally call the female gender role.

    The situation was the reverse among the Mundugumor. Here both men and women were fierce, competitive, and violent. Both sexes seemed to almost dislike children and often physically punished them. In the Mundugumor society, then, different gender roles also did not exist, as both sexes conformed to what we Americans would normally call the male gender role.

    In the Tchambuli, Mead finally found a tribe where different gender roles did exist. One sex was the dominant, efficient, assertive one and showed leadership in tribal affairs, while the other sex liked to dress up in frilly clothes, wear makeup, and even giggle a lot. Here, then, Mead found a society with gender roles similar to those found in the United States, but with a surprising twist. In the Tchambuli, women were the dominant, assertive sex that showed leadership in tribal affairs, while men were the ones wearing frilly clothes and makeup.

    Mead’s research caused a firestorm in scholarly circles, as it challenged the biological view on gender that was still very popular when she went to New Guinea. In recent years, Mead’s findings have been challenged by other anthropologists. Among other things, they argue that she probably painted an overly simplistic picture of gender roles in her three societies (Scheper-Hughes, 1987). Other anthropologists defend Mead’s work and note that much subsequent research has found that gender-linked attitudes and behavior do differ widely from one culture to another (Morgan, 1989). If so, they say, the impact of culture on what it means to be a female or male cannot be ignored.

    Extensive evidence of this impact comes from anthropologist George Murdock, who created the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of almost 200 preindustrial societies studied by anthropologists. Murdock (1937) found that some tasks in these societies, such as hunting and trapping, are almost always done by men, while other tasks, such as cooking and fetching water, are almost always done by women. These patterns provide evidence for the evolutionary argument presented earlier, as they probably stem from the biological differences between the sexes. Even so, there were at least some societies in which women hunted and in which men cooked and fetched water.

    More importantly, Murdock found much greater gender variation in several of the other tasks he studied, including planting crops, milking, and generating fires. Men primarily performed these tasks in some societies, women primarily performed them in other societies, and in still other societies both sexes performed them equally. Figure 12.4.2 (Gender Responsibility for Weaving) shows the gender responsibility for yet another task, weaving. Women are the primary weavers in about 61% of the societies that do weaving, men are the primary weavers in 32%, and both sexes do the weaving in 7% of the societies. Murdock’s findings illustrate how gender roles differ from one culture to another and imply they are not biologically determined.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Gender Responsibility for Weaving
    Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

    Anthropologists since Mead and Murdock have continued to investigate cultural differences in gender. Some of their most interesting findings concern gender and sexuality (Morgan, 1989; Brettell & Sargent, 2009). Although all societies distinguish “femaleness” and “maleness,” additional gender categories exist in some societies. The Native Americans known as the Mohave, for example, recognize four genders: a woman, a woman who acts like a man, a man, and a man who acts like a woman. In some societies, a third, intermediary gender category is recognized. Prior to the late twentieth century, anthropologists called this category the berdache, who is usually a man who takes on a woman’s role. However, this term is now considered outdated and can be offensive, because it is derived from a French word with a derogatory meaning. Berdache has been replaced with the term two-spirit, which is the term chosen by Native American and First Nations people. This intermediary category combines aspects of both femininity and masculinity of the society in which it is found and is thus considered a third gender. Although some people in this category are born as intersex individuals, meaning they have genitalia of both sexes, many are born biologically as one sex or the other but adopt a third gender.

    Another example of this intermediary gender category may be found in India, where the hirja role involves males who wear women’s clothing and identify as women (Reddy, 2006). The hirja role is an important part of Hindu mythology, in which third genders play key roles both as humans and as gods. Today people identified by themselves and others as hirjas continue to play an important role in Hindu practices and in Indian cultural life in general. Serena Nanda (1997, pp. 200–201) calls hirjas “human beings who are neither man nor woman” and says they are thought of as “special, sacred beings” even though they are sometimes ridiculed and abused.

    One more example, but not the last, of a third gender is composed of women warriors in 33 Native American groups in North America. Walter L. Williams (1997) calls these women “amazons” and notes that they dress like men and sometimes even marry women. In some tribes, girls exhibit such “masculine” characteristics from childhood, while in others they may be recruited into “amazonhood.” In the Kaska Indians, for example, a married couple with too many daughters would select one to “be like a man.” When she is about 5 years of age, her parents would begin to dress her like a boy and have her do male tasks. Eventually, she would grow up to become a hunter. These examples of third genders identified by anthropologists remind us that gender is culturally constructed and not just a biological fact.


    Brettell, C. B., & Sargent, C. F. (Eds.). (2009). Gender in cross-cultural perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York, NY: William Morrow.

    Morgan, S. (Ed.). (1989). Gender and anthropology: Critical reviews for research and teaching. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

    Murdock, G. (1937). Comparative data on the division of labor by sex. Social Forces, 15, 551–553.

    Nanda, S. (1997). Neither man nor woman: The Hirjas of India. In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in cross-cultural perspective (2nd ed., pp. 198–201). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Reddy, G. (2006). With respect to sex: Negotiating Hirja identity in South India. New Delhi, India: Yoda.

    Scheper-Hughes, N. (1987). The Margaret Mead controversy: Culture, biology and anthropological inquiry. In H. Applebaum (Ed.), Perspectives in cultural anthropology (pp. 443–454). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    Williams, W. L. (1997). Amazons of America: Female gender variance. In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in cross-cultural perspective (2nd ed., pp. 202–213). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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    "Understanding Sex and Gender" in Sociology by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License,