Alma Gottlieb starts her essay with a statement of what she sees as the prevailing view among anthropologists who deal with the comparative symbolism of gender. It is the familiar one that holds that "all women, everywhere, have been viewed by their societies in varying degrees as...a source of mystical contamination, and that this symbolic system in turn reflects the sociopolitical subordination of women to men."
Without wholly rejecting this model of "the second sex" Gottlieb questions its universality. To substantiate her position she presents the case of the Beng of the Ivory Coast, where the usual analogy "male:female::pure:polluting" is clearly not relevant.
She examines the religion and the gender ideology of the Beng and finds them woven together in such a way that the dimensions of male-female relations form "part of a comprehensive and logical symbolic system that comprises much of Beng religion." This system in turn she links to the structure of the matriclan, a dominant feature of Beng society.
In her conclusion Gottlieb suggests that societies with patrilineal descent groups, where newly wed couples move in with the groom's family, would be more likely to exhibit an ideology of female pollution "as a metaphor for the marginality of women." Societies like the Beng, however, "may prefer alternative ideologies that permit far more symbolic flexibility in gender conceptions than much of the recent literature has pointed to."