Male dominance has been described as universal in human societies by many influential writers on gender, sex roles, and the status of women in cross-cultural perspective (for example, Beauvoir 1953; Rosaldo 1974, 1980; Ortner 1974; Ortner and Whitehead 1981). Such a universality implies that female subordination either results directly from human biology or is inherent in human cultures due to the constraints of human biology, and therefore perhaps unchangeable.
The independent nation of Papua New Guinea, the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, contains over 700 different linguistic and cultural groups. They, and other Melanesian societies, have frequently been described by anthropologists as egalitarian because almost all lack chiefs, nobles, or systems of ascribed rank, unlike the societies of the Polynesian culture area to the east. But, without specifying that they were writing about only half the society being observed, most anthropologists have described egalitarian social relations among men and not between men and women. Many of the cultures in the interior of New Guinea are well known for their strong ideologies of male dominance and beliefs in the polluting qualities of women (for example, Meggitt 1964; Brown and Buchbinder 1976; Poole 1981; Meigs, this volume). Yet New Guinea is also known for the great diversity of gender role patterns found in its many distinctive cultures (for example, Mead 1935).
Vanatinai, a small, remote island southeast of the main island of New Guinea, has its own language and culture and had never previously been studied by an anthropologist. Vanatinai is a sexually egalitarian society. There is no ethic of male dominance, the roles and activities of women and men overlap considerably, and the actions of both sexes are considered equally valuable. This overlap extends to the most important arena for the acquisition of personal prestige and influence over others, the traditional exchange and the mortuary ritual complex, in which both women and men