Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

A Cross-Cultural Test of Nancy Jay's Theory about Women, Sacrificial Blood and Religious Participation

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

A Cross-Cultural Test of Nancy Jay's Theory about Women, Sacrificial Blood and Religious Participation

Article excerpt


I examine the theoretical insights of Nancy Jay's 1992 investigation of patrilineal sacrificial rituals and their role in the restriction of women in religious rituals. I use the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, a representative sample of preindustrial societies, to test the strength of patrilineality and other factors identified as subordinating women in preindustrial societies. A societal pattern of male inheritance of property and patrilineal descent are the strongest predictors of women being restricted or excluded from major public religious rituals. The implications of this pattern for modern societies are discussed.

Key Words: Women's Religious Ritual Restriction, Patrilineal descent, Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.


Religious rituals have been thought of as holding a society together. (ii) They are often said by sociologists and anthropologists to model a sense of connection and create a shared identity. In the past several decades, there has been a contentious dialogue in many modern religious groups about the extent that women will be included in denominational structures and participate in major rituals (iii). Will they be allowed to be official leaders? Or must they simply be participants? Many denominations, at least fortyfour of the major American denominations, now ordain women as leaders. Yet, there continues to be strong opposition to women leaders in some denominations in the United States. (iv) This type of restriction of women and the debate about their role can be found for many religions worldwide in both industrializing and more industrial societies. It is found in some groups within Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. (v) Some insight into aspects of this current debate can be gained from examining a representative sample of preindustrial societies for their patterns of religious ritual restriction. While the strict patrilineal lineages that controlled property and women's ability to reproduce are not often found in modern societies; there are vestiges of this way of thinking about connection that seem to remain in modern industrial societies. Religion is said to be a more cumulative process with layers remaining from the previous tradition. (vi) This stress on men connecting through time can be seen in "father and son" businesses and corporations. It is also seen in the famous Mt Rushmore in South Dakota where male leaders have been memorialized in stone proclaiming at one level that males made and continue to connect this county over several centuries.

Some previous scholars discuss patrilineal descent as simply a reflection of the material facts of work role. (vii) However Nancy Jay (1992), a feminist sociologist of religion, and several other anthropologists have suggested that the ideas about lineal connection over generations are more important in shaping a society than was previously thought. Moreover, they maintain that these rules are more about procreative roles than productive roles. (viii) Patriliny, a short hand word for the rule of a patrilineal sense of connection between generations, may have shaped inheritance rules, residence patterns and other rules so that they favor men.

This stress on the power of patrilineality is echoed in the recent work of anthropologist Carol Delaney. Describing modern rural Turkey, she comments on the association between men, paternity, and divine power: According to Delaney, "This association is part of the power behind these patriarchal systems, for it is the glorification, not just of the male, but of the male as 'father.' That, to me is what patriarchy is about. The widespread uses of the term 'patriarchy' to refer to other systems of male dominance seems too intellectually sloppy, for the term 'father' derives its meaning from an entire system of beliefs about procreation that is not universal." (Delaney 1990 28).

Instead of a simple reversal of the Marxist stress on the power of production or inheritance patterns, this definition of patriarchy is pointing to the need to include a different set of "materials and labor" and the ideas that develop around them to explain restrictive behaviors. …

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