The Natural Superiority of Women (5th Edition), by the biological and sociocultural anthropologist Ashley Montagu, serves as an important examination of the relationship between men and women in early feminist anthropology. The book covers various topics across its chapters, including the contribution of genes, biology, and culture to defending the author’s thesis: women are naturally superior to men. Montagu defines superior as “the extent at which any trait, whether biological or social, confers survival benefits upon the person or the group” (p. 91) Individual and group survival is not merely a short-term consequence of these traits, but should be understood as also contributing to the long-term survival of both.
The book itself is an excellent read. Montagu has a poetic way of writing which invokes a powerful sense of injustice as he discusses the historic subjection of women. The chapters are laid out logically, first contextualizing women as being historically treated subordinate to men, and then moving through topics such as sex, creativity, and intelligence to support the author’s central argument: women are superior to men. Montagu uses data to support his argument in a strategic way, employing them strategically while not inundating the reader.
The appendix of the book also provides important context, first with the inclusion of the “United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women”. This was adopted by the UN 14 years after the publication of the first edition of the text and indicates a cultural shift of the view of women within society. The appendix also includes a reflexive piece by Montagu that examines how he may have come to the conclusions in the book. This is an important practice that is often left out of works but provides essential information on the processes that have gone in to creating ideas.
The Natural Superiority of Women does an excellent job historicizing the subjection of women and frames Western views of the inferiority of women for each chapter theme in a historical context. Particularly in Chapter 2: ”The Subjection of Women”, Montagu devotes much of the chapter to providing the historical foundation for how we came to have the gendered views associated with value and status in Western societies. He begins by discussing the representation of women by prehistoric peoples. These peoples are hypothesized to live in egalitarian groups with little if any status being unequally distributed by gender and yet most of the representations, particularly figurines, have been of women. Very few representations of men have been found from early human societies.
Montagu continues by illustrating the transformation of these egalitarian groups in Europe to patriarchal, warlike, stratified societies. He discusses the narrative provided by Gimbutas, which includes the invasion of Europe by the Kurgans from what is now Russia. The invasion was facilitated by advanced weaponry and domesticated horses. The shift is also illustrated by texts such as the Old Testament and Classical writings.
Montagu also provides cross-cultural comparisons to demonstrate that the gender roles that women occupy in Western societies aren’t normative. An evaluation of cross-cultural experiences around pregnancy and birth in Chapter 2 demonstrate that the convalescence associated with birth in Western societies is a product of historical context and not a biological consequence, as women in other societies often go back to being a productive contributor to the family, sometimes immediately after giving birth.
The historical and cross-cultural analysis provides a compelling argument for why male domination isn’t a necessary consequence of human existence; it isn’t human nature as some scholars argue (see: Demonic Males, Wrangham 1996). While the historical and cross-cultural context demonstrates that men and women have been and can be valued equally in societies, this isn’t the central argument of the book. As the title explicitly states, Montagu is arguing that women are not only culturally superior, but naturally superior to men. While I agree with the general sentiment, the argument isn’t particularly convincing.
Montagu defines superiority as “… being of higher nature or character… in any trait, whether biological or social, that confers survival benefits upon the person and the group” (p. 91). From here he sets out to prove that women, across any category are superior to men. Montagu argues that genetically, women are superior because they have two X-chromosomes which gives them a “richer genetic capacity than the male” (p. 130) in reference to Drs. Tjio and Puck, who discovered the size difference in the chromosomes. This argument assumes that there is something special about having a second X-chromosome that confers some advantage despite the fact that males are born (1/500-1/1000 births) with two X-chromosomes, resulting in Klinefelter syndrome. Females (XX, XO, or XXX individuals) undergo lyonization, the inactivation of one X-chromosome, which calls into question Montagu’s overreliance on the benefits of a second X.
Montagu also discusses women’s cognitive superiority, whether it be intellectually, sexually, or creatively. While arguing for women’s cognitive superiority, he relies too heavily on Freudian theory. It becomes reductive and attributes a lot of men’s behavior to their jealousy of women’s ability to have children while neglecting the cultural context that produces and constrains gendered behavior. Montagu writes “… women are, on the whole, more quick-witted than men, because they were born that way…” (p. 102) which indicates some biological difference between our binary gender categories.
While I disagree with women’s natural superiority, I do agree that women are superior in other ways which Montagu illustrates beautifully. Women are enculturated to be patient, strong, nurturing, and less aggressive but it doesn’t follow that these features are derived from their biology. The features are likely a product of their historical subjugation and living within a patriarchal society. The Natural Superiority of Women does something very interesting; it serves as the antithesis, the negation of the thesis of men’s superiority. As Hegel argues in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (1830) there is a conflict between a position and its counterposition, each containing parts of the truth but are also exaggerations of the whole truth. In their conflict, a synthesis is worked out, getting closer to the truth. I think that Montagu’s argument serves to move the discourse along so we, as a society, can better understand the relationship between the genders more thoroughly and create a society that values all members equally, not just genders, but races, ability, and class.
Aside: I was once asked: “if you could resurrect any anthropologist to have a chat, who would it be?” I quickly came to a definitive answer and it is Ashley Montagu. The Natural Superiority of Women and Man’s Most Dangerous Myth have both been incredibly formative books for me.