Out: Gender and Sexual Dimorphism Essay

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“The Woods Are for Men”:
Sexual Dimorphism and the Origin of “Gender Roles”
JOHN SHEEHAN
Tompkins Cortland Community College
This paper chronicles the development of “traditional” gender roles among tribal peoples, and shows how various socially constructed “mas‐ culinities” (and “femininities”) can be accommodated under such a rubric. Arguing from the seeming evolutionary thrust of hominid devel‐ opment toward greater cerebration, it will analyze the increasing sexual dimorphism of hominids, both externally—at bicep and pelvis—and in‐ ternally—in the left and right hemispheres of the brain. With the ever‐ greater vulnerability of our ever‐more complex, neuron‐incubating offspring, human males and females developed ever‐diverging bodies and ever‐differing social roles, relative to our primate kin, that in hunter‐ gatherer societies became codified as “gender roles.” The nature of Jun‐ gian archetypes, the tenets of Cultural Anthropology, the linguistic determinism of Chomsky and Sapir‐Whorf, and Dumézil’s religio‐social model for the evolution of Indo‐European societies will be analyzed in support of this paradigm. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples of western New York State will serve as a case study of a modern tribal peo‐ ple who, for generations now, have been struggling to keep their “gender roles” unpolluted from the cultural mores of the westernized peoples that still encroach upon them.
Keyterms: traditional gender roles, tribal people, sexual dimorphism, hunter‐gatherer societies, Iroquois (native Americans)
Recently, I have worked on an archeological dig in the western portion of New
York State that had been petitioned for by the clan mothers of the Cayuga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation, through their chiefs, because the site had revealed to the spiritual leaders of the Cayugas that it was ready to tell its story. I felt quite honored, and humbled, that I was chosen to be part of this team of excavators who would perform “surgery” on the living remains of
Sky Woman—the primordial female deity who fell from the heavens to land upon the back of a vast turtle, and through her sacrifice, provided the firmament upon which Haudenosaunee society and culture would be grounded, literally.
Proceedings of the 18th Annual American Men’s Studies Association Conference, 2010, 105-121.
© 2011 by the Men’s Studies Press, LLC. All rights reserved. http://www.mensstudies.com
AMSA.18.121 / $15.00 * DOI: 10.3149/AMSA.18.121
ISBN-13: 978-1-931342-33-9 (pbk) / 978-1-931342-34-6 (E-book)

106 / Sheehan

She, the site, had to be treated reverentially, and I was more than happy to do so. The fact that the site was referred to as “she” was a reflection of the gendri‐ fication of the environment in Haudenosaunee cosmology.
Historically, the geographical landscape of the Haudenosaunee has been cul‐ turally demarcated into two “places”—“the Woods,” the “place” for men, and
“the Clearing,” the “place” for women. The site that we excavated was part of
“the Clearing,” and our surgery was often done under the watchful eyes of the clan mothers. The Haudenosaunee are a people who have strong gender roles woven into the fabric of their society and history, a truism for which they are not only not apologetic, but also, and for generations now, have been struggling to keep these “gender roles” unpolluted from the cultural mores of the western‐ ized peoples that have encroached upon, and still continue to encroach upon, them. Their longhouses are still adorned with the totem symbols of the clan mothers of the respective nations, and the men must still leave the longhouses of their mothers and migrate to the longhouses of their wives after marriage. It is a matrilineal society. It is this Haudenosaunee devotion to their gender roles that prompted me to ruminate on the nature of gender roles in general and chronicle how “traditional” gender roles among tribal peoples first developed, and how various socially‐constructed…