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 from Sandra 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