Young woman standing outside church door

While some scholars focus on specific cases to add to the breadth and diversity of knowledge, others tackle big questions. They strive to discover the reasoning behind so-called universal truths. Sherry B. Ortner links the association of male with culture and female with nature in her attempt to explain the secondary status of women in cultures across the globe. Ortner identifies three factors that support the notion of women’s closer affinity to nature:

“(1) woman’s body and its functions, more involved more of the time with ‘species life,’ seem to place her closer to nature, in contrast to man’s physiology, which frees him more completely to take up the projects of culture;

(2) woman’s body and its functions place her in social roles that in turn are considered to be at a lower order of the cultural process than man’s; and

(3) woman’s traditional social roles, imposed because of her body and its functions, in turn give her a different psychic structure, which, like her physiological nature and her social roles, is seen as being closer to nature” (73-74).

While these factors put women in a domestic role and put children as the primary social contact and concern of women, it does not segregate women from society. Despite the obvious limitations, it gives women a vital role in shaping and maintaining culture. Concerning children, the woman “… in fact is the primary agent of their early socialization. It is she who transforms newborn infants from mere organisms into cultural humans, teaching them manners and the proper ways to behave in order to become full-fledged members of the culture” (Ortner, 79-80).

In the past religion was at the center of culture. Religion and culture are still undoubtedly intertwined. But in the past instruction on belief, ritual and sacred texts would have been crucial in the socialization of children. Such involvement provided women with support, community and often their only social outlet outside the home (Shaw & Lee, 674). In the days before secularism, religious institutions were often heavily involved in societal operations. Though leadership roles were often off limits to women, the church or temple was a public place for women to voice concerns and seek advice and recourse.

As secularism started to make religion less visible, it also made women that depended on religion as their only public forum less visible. At that time more avenues like the workplace and various leadership roles began to open, offering women an alternative. But it is still evident today that these avenues are not without issue. The privatization of religion would have hit women especially hard as it has traditionally been their only source of comfort, support and aid outside the home. Women must adapt not only to closing channels, but must also navigate new ones.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” in Women, Culture, and Society. Edited by M.A. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974, pp. 68-87.

Shaw, Susan & Janet Lee. “Religion and Spirituality in Women’s Lives” in Women’s Voices Feminist Visions: classic and contemporary readings, 4th ed. Edited by S. Shaw & J. Lee. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2009, pp. 669-682.



  1. No way! Dichotomies like this one are the beginning of all wrong things ever done or said to women, and we shouldn’t perpetuate them any further. Women and men are all the born the same spiritually, only biologically different and that’s the message which should be conveyed. The difference nature vs. culture comes from the education men and women receive where are told yes, women should be/do like that and men should be/do different.
    Instead of looking into the past and try to explain it with today’s fancy anthropological theories, we should look into the future and find solutions that the gap closes on social and political level. If we continue to divide, we will never be equal.


    1. Thanks for the great feedback! While dichotomies like nature-culture and male-female are limiting and increasingly irrelevant, they are unfortunately still relevant to many social issues of today. No amount of wishful thinking will make them disappear. I agree that we need to stop perpetuating such divisions, but as long as they remain relevant they need to remain part of our discussions rather than ignored.

      Liked by 1 person

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