The Architecture of Inequality: Sex and Gender
Sex and Temperament
anthropologist Margaret Mead believed that masculine and feminine characteristics are
based mostly on cultural conditioning.1 In the 1930s, she set out to support
her theory by studying three cultures in New Guinea.
mountain-dwelling Arapesh, men and women displayed similar attitudes and actions. They
showed traits we would commonly associate with femininity: cooperation, passivity,
sensitivity to others. Mead described both men and women as being “maternal.” These
characteristics were linked to broader cultural beliefs about people's relationship to the
environment. The Arapesh didn't have any conception of “ownership” of land, so they
never had conflicts over possession of property.
South of the
Arapesh were the Mundugumor, a group of cannibals and headhunters. Here, too, males and
females were similar. However, both displayed traits that we in the West would associate
with masculinity: assertiveness, emotional inexpressiveness, insensitivity to others.
Mundugumor women, according to Mead, were just as violent, just as aggressive, and just as
jealous as the men. Both were equally virile, without any of the “soft” characteristics
we associate with femininity.
although the Tchambuli did distinguish between male and female traits, their gender
expectations were the opposite of what we expect in modern societies. Tchambuli women were
dominant, shrewd, assertive, and managerial; Tchambuli men were submissive and emotional
and were seen as inherently delicate.
is important because it shows that definitions of the natural tendencies of men and women
vary from culture to culture. Women need not be the nurturers of children; men need not be
the aggressors. In the cultures that Mead studied, both women and men engaged in behaviors
different from those typical in Western cultures yet were still considered women and men.
1Mead, M. 1963. Sex and temperament in three
primitive societies. New York: William Morrow.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.