Sherry B. Ortner
Much of the creativity of anthropology derives from the tension between two sets of demands: that we explain human universals, and that we explain cultural particulars. Given this tension, woman provides us with one of the more challenging problems to be dealt with. The secondary status of woman in society is one of the true universals, a pan-cultural fact. Yet within that universal fact, the specific cultural conceptions and symbolizations of woman are extraordinarily diverse and even mutually contradictory. Further, the actual treatment of women and their relative power and contribution vary enormously from culture to culture, and over different periods in the history of particular cultural traditions. Both of these points--the universal fact and the cultural variation-- constitute problems to be explained.
My interest in the problem is of course more than academic: I wish to see genuine change come about, the emergence of a social and cultural order in which as much of the range of human potential is open to women as is open to men. The universality of female
From Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (eds.), Woman, Culture and Society ( Stanford University Press, 1974), 67-87. Copyright © 1974 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Reprinted by permission. The first version of this paper was presented in October 1972 as a lecture in the course "'Women: Myth and Reality'" at Sarah Lawrence College. I received helpful comments from the students and from my co-teachers in the course: Joan Kelly Gadol, Eva Kollisch, and Gerda Lerner. A short account was delivered at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Toronto, November 1972. Meanwhile, I received excellent critical comments from Karen Blu, Robert Paul, Michelle Rosaldo, David Schneider, and Terence Turner, and the present version of the paper, in which the thrust of the argument has been rather significantly changed, was written in response to those comments. I, of course, retain responsibility for its final form. The paper is dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir , whose book The Second Sex ( 1953), first published in French in 1949, remains in my opinion the best single comprehensive understanding of 'the woman problem'.