Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender

Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender

Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender

Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender


Beyond the Second Sex is an innovative work that challenges Simone de Beauvoir's notion that women are "the second" in every society. Anthropological inquiry into male-female relations has evolved around debates concerning sexual inequality. Based on original field research, the essays presented in this volume are not concerned with inequality per se. Rather, the authors pose ethnographic and analytical challenges in the assumptions and definitions that, in the past, have supported judgments about sexual equality and inequality. They move away from broad labels and blanket judgments in favor of addressing the conflict, contradictions, and ambiguities that are so often encountered in field research.

These essays maintain that, in discussing the cultural construction and representation of gender, the "culture" that is abstracted from field data cannot be separated from a complex, ongoing, and everchanging local process. From this point of view, the editors conclude, the relationship of the sexes to each other is best discussed in terms of the conflicts, tensions, and paradoxes that are at the heart of daily life in many societies.

Beyond the Second Sex will be of interest to students and scholars of anthropology and women's studies.


In April of 1984, the University of Pennsylvania sponsored an international conference "to examine women's status" and "to explore women's scholarship." The conference organizers took as their baseline the work of Simone de Beauvoir and they framed the central issues in terms of the theme After the Second Sex: New Directions. When asked to organize a panel of anthropologists, Peggy Sanday decided to focus on ethnographic studies of issues related to Beauvoir's concept of women as the second sex. Not only had her own cross-cultural research shown this notion to have limited validity but at the time of the invitation she had just finished three summers of fieldwork in a society where in certain contexts men, not women, are perceived as the second sex. Discussions with other anthropologists, particularly Anna Meigs, confirmed the impression that labeling women "the second sex" obscured the complexity of gender relations in many ethnographic studies.

In looking for relevant papers Sanday sought studies that fell into one or another of the following criteria: (1) particularistic studies of women actively involved in economic and political negotiation, (2) ethnographic analyses of feminine symbolism as models of and for behavior, and (3) studies that avoided preconceived theoretical structures in favor of deriving theoretical patterns from women's activities. At the time of the conference, the participants expressed strong sentiment for publishing the papers and for adding authors whose research was relevant for understanding Western sex roles. Subsequently, Ruth Goodenough joined us. Goodenough had studied United States kindergarten classes with the questions we had in mind. Sanday also solicited a paper from Igor Kopytoff, who was interested in writing a cultural critique of Western sex roles from the perspective of his Suku data. Later, papers were also solicited fromSandra Barnes,Caroline Bledsoe , and Lila Abu-Lughod as these authors were writing on topics relevant to one of the themes of the book from the perspective of their fieldwork.

The conference participants agreed to write for a general audience so that the book could be used in Women's Studies courses and general . . .

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