Review: “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”

June 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

In “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture,” Sherry Ortner offers us an explanation to why women have been universally considered to be second-rate to men throughout history, by arguing that women’s subordinate status is a result of the human mindset that human culture is superior to nature, that culture is man’s way of subduing nature.  Ortner theorizes that women’s body and psychology are perceived as symbolically identifiable with nature, while men are more associated with culture, thus resulting in the women being considered inferior to men.

Ortner argues that women are largely identified with nature because they are the ones who give birth, and thus create new life. Women must devote a greater portion of their time and body than procreation than men, as they have more body parts and functions, such as breasts and menstruation, that solely exist for the purpose of having children. They are seen as being more connected to children. Therefore, society often confines women to a domestic familial role, freeing up the men to pursue more “cultural” endeavors like art or religion.  Children themselves are viewed as primitive humans, not yet civilized by the affects of culture. As women are the ones who raise children, transforming them into sophisticated adults, Ortner contends that women are thus seen as only an intermediary between nature and culture. Psychologically, women are more emotional and sentimental than men, making men more inclined to more abstract, “cultures” thought, while women’s thoughts tend to be more connected to other people.

However, Ortner herself acknowledges that some of her arguments can be easily contradicted. She points out examples, such as European courtly love, where women were exalted as the bearers of culture and yet were still subordinate to men. She also lends credit to another writer who claimed that women’s sentimental tendencies are actually a result, and not cause, of a male-dominated world. I personally believe that such a widespread and long-lasting mindset must have very intricate underlying reasons, and may be difficult to explain with a single theory.


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