Sunday, April 6, 2008

How Harsh Environments Hurt Men and Women

Syndicated from my post for Gifted for Leadership.

The snow whipped around my home in the Rocky Mountains. The night wind howled and woke me. My husband, Dale, heard it too but in our sturdy home, reliable furnace, and warm comforter we just snuggled closer.

Yet, put me back before electricity, fuel, and birth control and a storm like that could shake me up. I’d be more dependent on Dale for food and warmth, possibly pregnant, definitely cold. And I sincerely doubt I would be a writer/speaker working alongside my husband. This world without our modern inventions affects how men and women interact. Without protection a harsher environment actually segregates women from men.

Let me explain. As David Gilmore of the State University of New York has observed (Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity), in most cultures men must earn and maintain their masculinity through stressful testing. Women are granted safer jobs that allow for the bearing and nursing of children. Therefore, in case of danger, the men may be sacrificed first and are easily replaced. So our biological distributions predispose women for safety and men for risk. Women are essential; men are expendable, as practices in the animal kingdom (one male with a harem) and polygamy indicate. But, Gilmore is quick to assert, men are not naturally noble, nor more eager for the job. Men must be pushed into risk. Boys are coerced, and when required, shamed, into manhood making obstacles and male rites of passage, to prove they are real men.

To continue reading visit: Gifted for Leadership (April 4, 2008).


Anonymous said...

Amen! Great insights here, Jonalyn. I always appreciate the anthropological and historical evidence for the "why" of gender roles. And hence, the "why not" for many of them within our current society...I've printed out a copy for my gender files (for lack of a better term), and I'm passing it along to some friends as well. Hope you and Dale are well.


Anonymous said...

"As the habitat became harsher, men took upon themselves the need to conquer it, fighting for security. In the process they developed male rites of passage and further divided themselves from their female partners."

took upon themselves the need? you make sound like it wasn't a necessity to have to work so hard for survival. Moreover, I fail to see the connection between survival in a harsh environment and rites of passage you describe. It seems that rites of passage are not necessarily survival related, such as in the case of fraternities. Some may be.

But you cannot judge the psychological efficacy of rites of passage based on the effects. This is known a the fallacy of appealing to consequences.

Lastly, the title is misleading. It should say "How harsher environment cause men to wrong and injure women". It's more in keeping with the content of your post.

--Rick, Santa Barbara

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Katie- thanks for caring about anthropological/historical reasons!

Rick- you have pointed out the very crux of the argument I'm making. I do believe men felt it was necessary to work so hard for survival.

Men felt the pressure to protect their women, their children from the harsh environment. This is precisely why they shouldered the responsibility of providing/protecting. But since young boys don't naturally want to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the tribe we find male rites of passage cropping up. These rites were originally meant to toughen up the boys to make them into men who can be relied upon in battle, to be able to find food, shelter, etc. You've said you don't see the correlation between rites of passage and survival. Most cases there is a clear causation, the environment requires a skill to survive and men are required to demonstrate that skill.

Let me try to restate Gilmore's thesis: "Becoming certifiably male often involves physically challenging rites of passage directly related to risks posed by the surrounding environment." Some examples might help
1- the young Sambian in east New Guinea's highlands cannot marry at all unless he is a competent hunter, but a good hunting record brings multiple wives and mistresses. Hunting is required for survival.
2- The aboriginal Mehinaku of the Brazilian rainforests practice slash-and-burn horticulture and fish in risky lakes and rivers. They force boys to participate with their fathers in these activities. Failure to do so brands the boys as "little girls" and they are warned that no woman will want them as they grow up. Farming and fishing are necessary for survival.
3- In contrast the Malaysian Semai, also relying on slash-and-burn horticulture, but the land is so plentiful that no one's turf needs to be protected. Farming is necessary for survival, but men do not need to guard their turf to practice farming. Interestingly, gender roles overlap almost completely. What would be your explanation for this?
For more examples see David Gilmore's "Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity."

Gilmore goes on to note that when the environment is less harsh (like a college university or most western countries today) men needn't create rites of passage. You've pointed out that hazing in college is certainly not survival related. In some ways you are correct. However, a young man's social survival, his reputation may hang in the balance, depending on how well he endures the hazing. My question is why do males do this? still? I'm frankly not familiar with the fallacy of appealing to consequences, however, I'm not trying to judge the efficacy of the rites of passage, merely to note that it exists and some men take it very seriously, enough so that they endure it. I've also found it fascinating that the rites of passage coordinate with what survival skills in that environment.

A few questions that I think worth pondering:
1- Why do some men insist on male rites of passage today?
2- Why are males intent upon believing it is their responsibility to be the primary caretaker for survival, when they might share this burden with their wives?

I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Finally, I appreciate your idea on a different title, however, I'm sticking to my original title. I believe harsh environments harm women as well as men, as my first paragraphs indicate. For instance, a harsh environment hurts my body if I am pregnant more than it will hurt a man's body. This is my first point, my second is that men are also harmed by environments and they in turn ostracize or harm women.

So for women it's a double whammy, women are harmed by the environment and their men.