Sex Roles

, Volume 59, Issue 7, pp 476–481

The Evolution of Gendered Political Behavior: Contributions from Feminist Evolutionists


    • Department of Political ScienceLewis University
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11199-008-9465-8

Cite this article as:
Liesen, L.T. Sex Roles (2008) 59: 476. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9465-8


This commentary discusses Rebecca Hannagan’s article “Gendered Political Behavior: A Darwinian Feminist Approach,” an interdisciplinary examination of how human female social and political behaviors are unique and have impacted the evolution of human societies. She reexamines the anthropological literature on egalitarian foraging societies to focus on female autonomy and leadership, and connects women’s evolved skills with their contemporary leadership experiences. As Hannagan’s work demonstrates, Darwinian feminists challenge sexist stereotypes from a variety of sub-disciplines that use evolutionary perspectives, build upon and expand the earlier ground-breaking work of other feminist evolutionists, and blaze new trails using the latest technology and models to gain further understanding of human behavior that will help promote greater equality and opportunities for women.


Darwinian feminismFeminist evolutionistsGendered political behaviorAutonomyLeadership


Rebecca Hannagan’s article “Gendered Political Behavior: A Darwinian Feminist Approach” is an interdisciplinary examination of how human female social and political behaviors are unique and have impacted the evolution of human societies. By examining the research from evolutionary biology, the neurosciences, and political science, Hannagan demonstrates how evolved neurological structures in women interacting with their experiences of autonomy and leadership in early egalitarian societies have influenced contemporary patterns of gendered political behavior. There is much to appreciate in Hannagan’s article. First, she demonstrates the various contributions a Darwinian feminist perspective has contributed to our understanding of female behavior. Specifically, she explains how Darwinian feminists use the scientific method to control for their own biases and point out sexist ones. At the same time, Hannagan avoids the more controversial literature from evolutionary psychology. Some writers in the field tend to perpetuate sexual stereotypes, portraying them as immutable to current social and environmental pressures (for example Buss 1994, 1996; Wright 1994; Pinker 2003; Rhoads 2004). As previous feminist evolutionists, she relies on research from evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary biology to support her hypotheses (for example Hrdy 1999; Gowaty 1992, 1997a; Smuts 1995; Low 2000). Second, Hannagan revisits and reintroduces the ground-breaking work done by feminist evolutionary anthropologists during the 1970s and 1980s, and expands their insights into foraging life to help us understand the contemporary political behavior of women. While earlier feminist anthropologists (Slocum 1975; Tanner and Zihlman 1976; Zihlman 1978) tended to focus on the economic and social contributions females have made in foraging societies, Hannagan’s analysis contributes new insights into the political development of traditional societies and the behavioral legacies we have inherited from our female ancestors. Finally, Hannagan includes the findings in the contemporary neurosciences to explain how evolved female brain development and behavior may have impacted the development of political life. As Hannagan’s work demonstrates, Darwinian feminists challenge sexist stereotypes from a variety of sub-disciplines that use evolutionary perspectives, build upon and expand the earlier ground-breaking work of other feminist evolutionists, and blaze new trails using the latest technology and models to gain further understanding of human behavior that will help promote greater equality and opportunities for women.

Beyond Sexual Stereotypes

Feminism has impacted the evolutionary sciences for over thirty years, presenting critiques of unexamined assumptions of both male and female behavior and testing old and new hypotheses about female behavior. During the 1980s many feminists were vocal critics of early presentations of sociobiology—the modern synthesis of genetics, ethology, and ecology. As presented by Edward O. Wilson, this new discipline attempted to derive general principles concerning the biological foundations of social behavior in both humans and animals. The final and most controversial chapter in Wilson’s (1975) book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis examined the roles natural selection and sexual selection played in the evolution of human behavior, specifically mating and parenting behavior. Feminists outside the evolutionary sciences maintained that sociobiology and evolutionary approaches to human behavior are inherently sexist, portraying females as naturally passive, coy and choosey, and in contrast portraying males as promiscuous. These stereotypes, they argued, were in turn used to ascribe a biological basis for monogamy for women and adultery, polygyny and rape for men (Bleir 1984; Hubbard 1990; Fausto-Sterling 1985).

As the fury over sociobiology subsided by the 1990s, many evolutionists continued their work in disciplines other than sociobiology. Therefore, much of the work in behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, ethology and primatology use the fundamental assumptions of sociobiology, but not the label (Stamps 1995). Closer examination of the various sub-disciplines indicates that there are some areas of the evolutionary sciences that appeal to feminist evolutionists more than others. [I prefer the term “feminist evolutionist” to describe these scientists whose work is informed by female perspectives or feminist theory and who use them to formulate testable scientific hypotheses (Gowaty 1997a)]. According to Liesen (2007), feminist evolutionists find themselves in particular subfields of the evolutionary sciences—specifically behavioral ecology, primatology, and evolutionary biology. Drawing from Darwinian theories of natural selection, sexual selection, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and parental investment, feminist evolutionists have adopted the methodology of behavioral ecology in which they examine current variations in traits, behavior, and reproduction (Low 2000). While feminist evolutionists recognize the influences of biological variables in human behavior, they also tend to be more interested in how social and ecological constraints impact an individual’s behavioral options (Borgerhoff Mulder et al. 1997). Rather than seeing females as passive participants in reproduction and the various aspects of human social life, feminist evolutionists see females as actively and strategically pursuing their own reproductive success, assessing their environments and choosing the best strategies (Hrdy 1986, 1999; Gowaty 1992; Liesen 1995).

Interestingly, feminist evolutionists tend to avoid evolutionary psychology. Liesen (2007) suggests that feminist insights and female perspectives are more readily incorporated into behavior ecology, evolutionary biology, and primatology because of a shared understanding and approach to social behavior and environmental influences. A fundamental assumption made by evolutionary psychologists is that human minds are adapted to ancestral environments and are not currently pursuing fitness. By understanding the selection pressures our ancestors experienced, evolutionary psychologists maintain that the brain has specific information-processing mechanisms that evolved to solve challenges of survival and reproduction. In terms of male and female behavior, some evolutionary psychologists maintained that mate preferences are “hard-wired” in the evolved human brain and are nearly immune to change, while feminist evolutionists see human behavior as flexible, responsive to the environment, and capable of within-individual change.

Based on this analysis, it is understandable that other feminists are still wary of evolutionary psychology. Over the past 15 years, its relationship to feminism has been critical, if not overtly hostile. Some popular evolutionary psychologists and science writers still maintain that some stereotypical male and female behavior is hard-wired and immune to change. For example, David Buss’s examination of female oppression by men states that not only is the behavior hard-wired in humans, but that women are to be blamed for their own oppression:

Men’s dominant control of resources worldwide can be traced, in part, to women’s preferences in choosing a mate. These preferences, operating repeatedly over thousands of generations, have led women to favor men who possess status and resources and to disfavor men who lack these resources and to disfavor men who lack these assets. Ancestral men who failed to acquire such resources failed to attract women as mates. Women’s preferences thus established a critical set of ground rules for men in their competition with one another (Buss 1994, p. 212).

In addition, some evolutionary psychologists are hostile toward feminism in general and critical of feminist perspectives, claiming that feminists are driven by gender ideology and have weak methodologies (Wright 1994; see also Buss 1996, Pinker 2003, and Rhoads 2004). Evolutionary psychologists’ continued ignorance of feminism and their ongoing failure to recognize the vast contributions by feminist evolutionists is at worst the continuation of male bias, and at best scholarly negligence.

For nearly thirty years now, feminists within the evolutionary sciences challenged the sexual stereotypes, brought female and feminist perspectives to their research, and demonstrated that females are active and strategic in pursuit of their own reproductive success. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1981, 1986) was one of the first feminist primatologists who used sociobiological theories and evolutionary perspectives in her analyses of female behavior and male control of females. Instead of dismissing evolutionary perspectives, she used her research on primates to challenge sociobiology’s sexual stereotype of passive and coy females. She also wanted to show other feminists that evolutionary perspectives can provide new insights into female behavior and explain women’s oppression. As she continued her work, Hrdy (1986) demonstrated that primate and human females are sexually assertive and gain both genetic and non-genetic benefits from not being “coy.” Another primatologist who provided new insights into strategic female behavior was Barbara Smuts. Rather than being passive in mating, Smuts (1985) found that female baboons actively chose their own mates and created alliances with various males as they pursued their own reproductive success.

Even today, feminist evolutionists continue to challenge sexist assumptions they find in evolutionary theory. Brian Snyder and Patricia Adair Gowaty’s (2007) reexamined and attempted to replicate of A.J. Bateman’s (1948) experiments on Drosophila that became the foundational work for sexual selection and parental investment theories. His experiments and general observations became the founding “principles” about the evolution of sex differences in fitness. According to Snyder and Gowaty, these generalities were:

(1) there is greater variance in the number of mates among males than among females; (2) fitness is more closely associated with number of mates for males than for females; and (3) differences between the sexes in the variance in the number of mates (VNM) is the sine qua non signature of sexual selection (2007, p. 2457).

In their attempt to replicate Bateman’s experiment, they found that both methodological and theoretical flaws that call into question modern evolutionists’ assumptions about sexual selection that have been in place for over 30 years. This research could change evolutionists’ understanding of female reproductive behavior in profound ways.

Both feminism and evolutionary theory identify women’s reproductive interests as different from men’s, and that they do clash with men’s interests. As Hannagan rightly points out in her article, feminist evolutionists have facilitated a dialogue between feminism and the evolutionary sciences in the pursuit of understanding how males have tried to control females and their reproduction, but also why males strive for this control in the first place. Relying on both primatology and anthropology, Smuts (1995) examined the evolutionary origins of patriarchy. Not only does she describe the struggles women have had with male control over their lives, she also provides several hypotheses explaining how women lost control of their own reproduction and the resources necessary for their survival. These include:
  • Reduced social support from kin and female allies among our early ancestors.

  • Increasing strength of male–male alliances.

  • Men’s increasing control over food resources with the development of agriculture.

  • Development of social and political structures that increased the variance of male wealth and power.

  • Promotion of male control of female sexuality and resources by some women in pursuit of their own reproductive interests in a patriarchal environment.

  • Development of language that enabled men to further consolidate their power by using gender ideology to support male dominance and female subordination (Smuts 1995).

Male control of women’s lives throughout much of human history does not mean that this is women’s destiny. Women have struggled to make their own mate choices and to control the resources they need for their survival and reproduction. Once again, Patricia Adair Gowaty (1997b) created a model that demonstrated that each sex has counter-strategies that impact the other’s reproductive success. Her sexual dialectics model explains the various types of relationships between males and females and how these relationships affect reproductive behavior and social organization. For example, when access to females limits male reproduction, males will be under selection pressure to manipulate and control females’ reproduction. They could force copulations, control females’ access to resources, or restrain females from pursuing other mates. Males could also be “nicer” in manipulating females by facilitating female foraging, protecting them from predators, or by assisting them in raising their offspring. Gowaty found that whenever females fail to freely choose their mates, they then are under selection pressure to resist non-preferred males’ manipulation and control. Once females are successful in resisting direct control, males then are under selection to manipulate and control female access to resources. If this control is harmful to female fitness, then females will resist this control. Not only is this sexual dialectics model testable in both experimental and natural environments, it challenges Buss (1994; 1996) and other evolutionary psychologists who maintain that women perpetuate their own oppression by preferring and choosing men who control resources.

For decades now feminist evolutionists have challenged the male-centered theories about reproductive behavior, calling for a “biosocial” perspective that emphasizes the ecological context, development, and life history in the evolution of social and reproductive behavior. Patricia Adair Gowaty and Stephan P. Hubble’s (2005) quantitative model called DYNAMATE that examines the flexibility of reproductive behavior for both sexes. This is a great example of model building and hypothesis testing that is inspired by feminist critiques of patriarchy and inequality and takes seriously the complexity of social and reproductive behavior. The model considers individual life history, the probability of survival, the probability of encounters with mates, receptivity, and different environments for both males and females. Depending on the context and circumstances, Gowaty and Hubbell found that both males and females can be choosey, coy, or indiscriminate in their reproductive strategies, thus calling into question the sexual stereotypes that were presented as immutable by sociobiologists years ago and perpetuated today by some evolutionary psychologists.

Hannagan is certainly using a biosocial approach that feminist evolutionists called for decades ago. She definitely takes into account the complexity of individual behavior in terms environmental and biological variables. By building on the research of feminist anthropologists, she takes a new look at women’s autonomy and the development of women’s political styles of leadership.

The Legacy of Woman the Gatherer

It is great to see Hannagan referencing the work of feminist evolutionary anthropologists who successfully challenged the assumption that human societies were built on supposed accomplishments of “Man the Hunter.” During the 1960s, anthropologists, such as Sherwood Washburn and C. S. Lancaster (1968), argued that male hunting abilities were the key to human evolutionary adaptation. They argued that through hunting, human males developed new skills, learned to cooperate, invented language, and created tools and weapons. While she mentions several feminist evolutionary anthropologists, Hannagan could have spent more time looking at how important these contributions were during the 1970s. These were excellent examples of feminist criticism of the male bias in anthropology at the time as feminist evolutionary anthropologists successfully debunked the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis Liesen 1998. For example, Sally Slocum’s essay “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology” was the first feminist criticism of the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis. She argued that anthropologists portrayed males and their hunting experiences as the adaptive human activity, while assuming human females were passive and dependent on men. They portrayed women as sitting at home having children, and waiting for men to supply them with food. In other words, anthropologists during this period portrayed women as “simply drags on the species” (Slocum 1975, p. 42). In addition to uncovering this male bias, Slocum’s work emphasized the importance of the mother–infant bond for social development and food sharing, and how gathering contributed to the development of communication and the beginning of tool use for carrying food and infants.

Other feminist anthropologists also challenged the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis, demonstrating the key role early human mothers played in group survival, socialization, language, and tool use as they foraged on the savannah (Tanner and Zihlman 1976). Not only were women the main suppliers of the groups’ daily calories, they also were regularly sharing food with their offspring. As women created tools, such as sticks, containers, and sharp-edged rocks, to make the gathering of plants, eggs, and small animals easier and more efficient, they were also sharing food with other members of their groups. In this allocation of food resources, women were certainly taking on political roles within their groups, helping resolve the political conflicts over “who gets what, when, and how.” This classic definition of politics (Lasswell 1936) would certainly apply to the lives of foragers and could describe the types of decision women made in these communities.

In addition, feminist evolutionary anthropologists argued that the sexes were not relegated to specific roles in foraging communities. Both men and women hunted, foraged, shared knowledge, and helped protect each other from predators (Tanner and Zihlman 1976; Zihlman 1978). Finally, the relationship between mothers and their offspring were foundational to the transmittance of information, social traditions, and technological innovations (Zihlman 1978). The sharing of these roles and vital information certainly contributed to the egalitarian political relationships among men and women. Within Hannagan’s examination of gendered political behavior, these earlier works may be very useful in further supporting her argument that foraging societies allowed for female autonomy and leadership opportunities.

In terms of autonomy, Hannagan focuses on female decision-making in terms of balancing somatic and reproductive efforts and in terms of enforcing group norms. Hannagan supports her argument well by drawing on Hrdy’s (1999) work on mothers and the ongoing calculus they make in balancing their own survival along with their offspring’s. In addition, her essay certainly contributes a new perspective on female life and the contributions early women made to the development of egalitarian societies. Hannagan’s discussion of women’s enforcement of pro-social norms that promote fairness and cooperation is quite interesting. It would also be intriguing to look at how women enforced these pro-social norms and to address these questions: Did they use persuasion? Did women use aggression—indirect, verbal, or non-verbal—against men or women or both? While Hannagan portrays early women as peaceful promoters of group norms, there are several studies that suggest women do not hesitate to use aggressive tactics, especially against other females as they compete for men and resources (Burbank 1994; Campbell 2002). This certainly could be an area for future research.

Finally, it is surprising that she does not emphasize female autonomy in terms of female mate choice and reproductive strategies. As discussed above, feminist evolutionists have contributed greatly in demonstrating that the females are not passive in terms of their own reproductive behavior. Females actively seek out mates, build alliances, and try to control the resources they need for their own survival and reproduction (Hrdy 1986, 1997, 1999; Smuts 1985; Gowaty 1992, 1997b). Indeed, women have looked for counter-strategies to male control throughout human evolutionary history. In Smuts’ (1995) analysis of the origins of patriarchy, she suggests several counter-strategies to male control that could contribute to greater equality for women:
  • Strengthen the alliances among women to counter male alliances.

  • Expand economic opportunities for women so they can secure the resources they need for their own survival and reproduction.

  • Support economic and social equality for men because reducing this type of competition among men eventually benefits women.

  • Raise women’s consciousness about patriarchal practices so that they do not perpetuate inequality.

  • Counter patriarchal ideologies by having women need to gain access to schools, media, and the government (Smuts 1995).

In addition, as Gowaty (1997b) demonstrated with her model of sexual dialectics, females can freely and autonomously make mate choices once they have successfully resisted direct male control of their persons and the resources necessary for their survival and reproduction. This type of autonomy is foundational for women’s equality.

New Sources of Understandings of Female Behavior

Perhaps the most interesting contribution Hannagan makes to the study of gendered political behavior is her use of the research from the contemporary neurosciences and behavioral economics to support the findings of feminist evolutionists and her hypotheses regarding female autonomy and leadership. As Hannagan points out, studies using neuroimaging indicate that women’s brain structure enables them to be better processors of language and information about the emotions and non-verbal behavior of others. This certainly developed initially between mothers and their children. Evidence from foraging societies suggests that women developed these capacities as they cooperated as well as communicated with others regarding food sources, safety from predators, and in sharing tools. In addition, the studies using social dilemma experiments are also providing insights into the differences between male and female choices and behavior. She cites evidence that when compared to males, female political behavior is motivated more by altruism and is more cooperative in seeking solutions to problems. Overall, the connections that Hannagan makes between the neurosciences and the contributions from feminist evolutionists certainly will lead to further testing of these hypotheses.

Another interesting analysis that Hannagan provides pertains to female leadership opportunities and styles. Women’s verbal skills and facilitative styles in the context of foraging societies certainly could be the foundations for contemporary female leadership styles. She argues that women may have been “charismatic leaders” within egalitarian societies, using both verbal skills and abilities to “read” other’s emotions. These leaders probably came and went as situations arose, but that does not mean that women were not leaders, but had qualitatively different styles enabling them to navigate various personalities and interests. As Hannagan mentions, women leaders in legislatures lead differently than men. Not only do committee meetings tend to differ in structure of seating, the way women conduct the meetings involve fewer interruptions, more listening, and more cooperative behavior.

There are many opportunities for greater research in this area of female leadership and contemporary politics, especially in understanding why women are not as involved in formal political institutions and how people react to women as candidates when they do decide to run for office. Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox (2005) have found, when women do decide to run for political office, they can and do win. The problem is that many very qualified female candidates decide not to run for office. According to Lawless and Fox (2005), there is a significant gender gap in political ambition that they attribute to traditional family role orientations, a lack of encouragement to run for office, and the self-perception among women that they are not qualified enough to run for office. When women candidates do run for office, they can be quite successful. This may be because women candidates are also perceived to be less ambitious by those assessing possible leaders. According to Christopher Larimer, Rebecca Hannagan, and Kevin Smith (2007), decision-makers who crave power are seen as more unfair, more self-interested, and more likely to be male. In their experiment, they found that high ambition females are perceived to be fairer, more neutral, and less self-serving. Overall, Hannagan’s analysis of the egalitarian foraging environment may help explain the differences in male and female leadership styles, why women may opt out of running for formal political offices, and how women are perceived as better leaders.

In conclusion, Hannagan’s article certainly provides new insights and future research questions about the development of gendered political behavior. Building years of work by many feminist evolutionists, she provides an interdisciplinary analysis of female autonomy and leadership that includes both biological and environmental variables. As scholars further examine contemporary political structures that tend to be obstacles to women’s greater participation, Hannagan’s work may just help feminists find ways to restore the autonomy and leadership opportunities that women enjoyed earlier in our evolutionary history.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008