Sex Roles

, Volume 59, Issue 7, pp 465–475

Gendered Political Behavior: A Darwinian Feminist Approach


    • Department of Political ScienceNorthern Illinois University
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11199-008-9417-3

Cite this article as:
Hannagan, R.J. Sex Roles (2008) 59: 465. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9417-3


Darwinian feminists use an evolutionary framework to examine behaviors that promote survival and reproductive success. Subsequent power relations between women and men arise from conflicting reproductive strategies and social scientists ought to reconfigure their understanding of the psychological and behavioral repertoires of women and men based on their dynamic interactions throughout human evolution. This paper is an addition to the feminist literature on women’s contribution to evolution through an exploration of autonomy and leadership in egalitarian society and uses a Darwinian feminist approach to understand gendered political behavior.


Darwinian feminismGenderAutonomyLeadershipPolitical behavior


Assumptions that women’s biology, intelligence, contributions to evolution, historical or cultural change are inferior to men’s are not merely “idiosyncratically held beliefs of individual[s]” but widespread cultural beliefs institutionalized through discourse and actions (Harding 1995, p. 18). One of the most controversial critiques leveled against science is that the domination of science by men has had an impact on the doing of science—the actual content and results of scientific inquiry (Wylie 1997)—that lead to widespread assumptions about male power and female subordination. Feminist critiques that focus on the questions asked or the uses made of scientific research have historically been ignored or rejected on the basis that they lack a theoretically stable and empirically testable replacement for what they critique. This paper is an addition to the feminist literature on women’s contribution to evolution through an exploration of autonomy and leadership in egalitarian society but uses a Darwinian feminist approach toward understanding gendered political behavior. Unlike the standard social science models, which focus exclusively on environmental explanations for attitudes and behavior, a Darwinian feminist approach posits that behavior and psychology are products not merely of our learned experiences but also of our biology. Thus, Darwinian feminists provide a theoretically stable and empirically testable replacement for what they critique.

The Darwinian Feminist Approach

In an effort to recover and revisit what is remiss in previous research on human behavior—research that treated male experience and behavior as the human universal and either ignored or stereotyped female experience and behavior—Darwinian feminists have found that errors and missteps have very deep roots. Collectively, the early research programs in primatology, anthropology, history, and psychology have shown that female biology, intelligence, contributions to evolution, historical or cultural change are not inferior to male biology, intelligence, and contributions to evolution, historical or cultural change.

In the natural sciences, researchers examine behaviors that promote survival and reproductive success, but subsequent power relations between males and females come from conflicting interests and strategies that hinge on survival and reproduction. These subsequent power relations are of particular interest to social scientists. In order to understand present power struggles it may help to understand how they differ from the environment in which humans evolved (Hurley 2007). A Darwinian feminist approach provides such insight and the import of findings from the natural sciences to the social sciences may help transform current models and re-frame our understanding of gendered political behavior.

Pertinent to an understanding of a Darwinian feminist approach is an understanding of what it means to be a Darwinian feminist. Patricia Gowaty organized the 1994 Symposium on Evolutionary Biology and Feminism to discuss the issues surrounding how Darwinian sexual selection theory had been applied. This meeting was influential in sparking interest in and funding for female-focused research. Gowaty (1997) suggests that as a Darwinian feminist she is a facilitator of the dialog between the interfaces of feminisms and evolutionary biology. She argues that both seek to understand human nature and finds

satisfying symmetry in the fact that it was the early second-wave feminists and, independently, the early sociobiologists who brought us collectively... to the idea that all social acts are political (p. 2).

Similarly, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1981, 1999) states, in the new preface to her landmark book The Woman That Never Evolved,

[o]n the one hand I wanted to convince fellow sociobiologists that we had to widen our field of vision to include the interests and perspectives of both sexes if we were to have a comprehensive understanding of the evolutionary process. On the other hand, by broadening Darwinian stereotypes of female nature to be more realistic, I hoped to reach out to women long skeptical about the proposition that biology was irrelevant, but who nevertheless felt compelled to reject explanations they viewed as irredeemably biased by patriarchal preconceptions (p. xvi).

Barbara Smuts (1995) also suggests

[e]volutionary theory not only considers how men exercise power over women, as feminist theory does, but also investigates the deeper question of why males want power over females in the first place, which feminists tend to take as a given (p. 2).

Feminists typically posit that gender categories, relations, and social structures are a crucial dimension along which human lives are organized (Wylie 1997), and the modern Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is a framework from which to derive hypotheses regarding gender categories, power relations, and social structures. This theory, very basically, assumes that all organisms seek to survive as well as reproduce. The assumption that all organisms aim at reproductive success provides a useful theoretical basis for analyzing the costs and benefits involved in the different decision making processes of males and females.

The modern Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection involves variation in either physical or behavioral traits that are passed from parent to offspring. If the inherited physical or behavioral trait improves the ability of the organism to survive and reproduce over time, it is selected for via natural selection. In evolutionary parlance, one would say a trait is adaptive (i.e. has been selected for via natural selection) if it contributes to the fitness of the organism (Darwin 1859, 1871). It is the focus on “Darwinian selection pressures”—or the environmental variations that favor one trait over another—that makes a Darwinian approach compatible with feminisms (Gowaty 1997, p. 5). A Darwinian approach to understanding behavior ascribes no special place to anyone since “[n]o adaptation continues to be selected for outside the circumstances that happen to favor it” (Hrdy 1999, p. 13). Gowaty (1997) suggests that one of the most recognized—if not the only—human universals is the vast “diversity and variation among individuals” (p. 4–6), so it is often the case that narrow gender stereotypes are refuted by Darwinian feminist findings.

Darwinian feminists purposively use Darwin’s name to signal that the modern Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection and feminisms are not incompatible. The implicit suggestion is that the “feminist biophobia” of the past need not continue (Vandermassen 2005, p. 17). Perhaps by modern standards Charles Darwin was chauvinist in his portrayal of men as “active and ardent” and women as “passive and reclusive,” but the genius of his theory—arguably the best framework to understand not only human nature, but all living things—is his legacy. Darwin also attributed a more important evolutionary role to females than did most evolutionists for nearly a century after him: female choice in sexual selection. Since females bear the greater parental investment through pregnancy and lactation, they have more to gain from being highly selective about with whom to mate than do males. As a result, certain traits are selected for in males if, over time, females choose to mate with the males that bear those traits more than those who do not.

Darwinian feminists “construct predictive theories and systematically test predictions with experiments designed with controls against perceived biases” (Gowaty 1997, p. 5). Hrdy (1981, 1999), for example, has examined dominance, competition, and bonding among females and her findings reveal vast variation in female behavior. Smuts (1992, 1995) has investigated the origins of patriarchy and suggests male dominance over females varies depending on a number of environmental and structural factors. A Darwinian feminist approach can be both a critique of the way in which science has been done in the past, but also a starting point from which to explore male and female behavior based on an evolutionary framework. It is corrective in that it adds context and data to previous accounts of behavior, but it can also completely reconfigure interpretations of gendered behavior. A Darwinian feminist approach is both a way of seeing through a feminist lens as well as modern Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection, and a way of doing via the scientific method.

Theories that are powerful enough to account for the variation in the lived experiences and various oppressions of women, as well as provide a framework to construct predictive and testable hypotheses, may help organize and facilitate discussion among feminists and non-feminists on matters of gendered power relations. There can be many feminisms (for an overview see Donovan 2000) and such diversity can lead to misinterpretation when the sources of women’s oppression or the solutions to sexism are contested. Gowaty (1997) suggests that instead of focusing on the differences among feminist theories we should acknowledge common threads that run through feminisms that point to an underlying theory of human nature. By considering different foci—perhaps immediate and longer-term foci—it may no longer be necessary for feminists to be divisive about the sources of women’s oppression.

There is a problem with Gowaty’s unifying view of feminisms, however, in that Darwinian feminists work within science and many feminisms reject science as a male-dominated bastion that reinforces male control over women’s lives. Despite the Darwinian feminist recognition of the validity of the lived experiences of women, those crucial tests required when working within the scientific method draw a line, of sorts, between feminists who view science as a powerful tool for understanding the world and those who reject science as a viable way to understand gendered behavior. Sandra Harding (1995) states that history has shown us that “science” sometimes means the assumptions, observations, and discoveries of marginalized groups—such as the materialists that challenged the early Church’s reigning paradigm—but other times “science” is

the assumptions [of] those... dominant groups, as in the racial, sexist and class-bound biological determinist ones shaping nineteenth century craniology and other studies of intelligence (p. 11).

For Darwinian feminists, the scientific method is a way to obtain reliable knowledge and ensure accountability for claims because the veracity of results can be questioned, studies replicated, and hypotheses retested using different methods. Models change due to changing worldviews, sociopolitical factors, historical circumstances, the changing attitudes of researchers, and new data (Hager 1997a, b). Practitioners may not be able to detect their own biases, but science is organized such that others will correct their errors. They argue that this is not only good for science, but good for feminists.

It is in this epistemological stance that Darwinian feminists distinguish themselves from standpoint feminists or those who assert the social positioning of knowers determines the truth of the knowledge they produce. Darwinian feminists also distinguish themselves from postmodern feminisms and queer theorists who reject the entire edifice of knowledge based on empirical scientific findings on the grounds that it is merely an exercise of male power. A fundamental point of departure from a scientific approach by these more radical feminisms is whether biological sex is separable from socially constructed gender. Postmodern feminisms and queer theory posit that human beings are not only products of societal and discursive practices in terms of identity, but also in terms of bodies. For example, postmodern feminist Linda Nicholson (1994) does not accept “sex” as a biological foundation for socially constructed “gender.” She states,

[T]he body... becomes a variable, rather than a constant, no longer able to ground claims about the male/female distinction across large sweeps of human history (p. 82).

Darwinian feminists assert that female sexuality has been largely misunderstood (see Gowaty 1992, 1997; Hrdy 1999; Smuts 1992, 1995) and thus, identity and what may be considered “feminine” is misunderstood, but they disagree that both identity and body are social constructions. Male and female reproductive strategies form the basis of gendered dynamics so there is a ground for claims about male/female distinctions despite varied psychological and behavioral repertoires. Darwinian feminists obtain empirical evidence for their hypotheses based on evolutionary theory, but they also employ an anti-foundationalist approach to knowledge (Hawkesworth 2006) in that they question past assumptions and proceed to add to a more critical and inclusive science. Inasmuch as feminisms are open to employing the scientific method, a Darwinian feminist approach can serve as a kind of meta-feminism because it provides footing for explanations involving the ultimate causes of power relations.

Women’s Political Contribution to Egalitarian Society

Lee (1979, 1982), Zihlman (1981), Lancaster (1978) and others used newly emerging information beginning in the 1970’s to provide a picture of human origins that included women. They specifically focused on women’s role in subsistence in addition to their centrality in reproduction. Women’s economic contribution to group life is now fairly well understood and the “Man-the-Hunter” model is considered an inaccurate depiction of the evolutionary past (regarding monogamous pair-bonding see Hrdy 1999, p. 231–33; and Zihlman 1997, p. 99; for division of labor see Zihlman 1997, p. 96–98; Hrdy 1999, p. 199; and Lancaster 1978). Understanding that it is not the case that active and ardent males provisioned sedentary and reclusive females with meat in exchange for reproductive opportunities has important implications. It was a result of those doing Darwinian feminist anthropology that toppled the “Man-the-Hunter” model of human origins. To expand upon the work of Darwinian feminists who focused on women’s economic role, this paper examines their political role by exploring autonomy and leadership within egalitarian society.

Humans, like our primate relatives, move almost imperceptibly from “coalitions” to “politics” by adopting simple rules to create outcomes of increasing scale and complexity (Low 2000, p. 198). Politics is the adoption of norms (or rules) to bring about particular outcomes. Although politics take place at the group level—it is a social and not a solitary endeavor—individuals behave politically by deciding whether to take part in the creation of norms and deciding whether or not to adhere to norms and reinforce them to bring about particular group outcomes. Humans possess the neural machinery to support group success while monitoring individual interests—namely, protecting one’s autonomy, but may also seek to dominate others (Cosmides and Tooby 1992; Ostrom 1998; Sober and Wilson 1998). The emergence of leaders to solve the conflicts that arise from differing interests can have important implications for politics. The interplay of these roles—autonomy and leadership—and an understanding that they are gendered is fundamental to an understanding of politics.


Humans everywhere on earth lived as foragers until the emergence of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago. Though there is variation among groups, foragers are largely considered egalitarian in that they lack formal hierarchy and leaders. Christopher Boehm (1999) posits that the egalitarians—both foraging and tribal in his extensive sample—are guided by a love of personal freedom, or autonomy. This egalitarian ethos is comprised of both proscriptions to curb deviant behavior and prescriptions for pro-social behavior and foragers make egalitarianism happen “despite competitiveness” and the “innate human tendencies” to dominate that can easily lead to hierarchies (p. 64). Gowaty (1992) finds the “theoretical primacy of male–male competition to be one of the most potentially misleading notions in evolutionary biology” (p. 229), not because it is wrongheaded but because it has led to skewed conclusions about human nature (i.e. males compete for dominance and females do not, therefore, males are “political” and females are not, etc.). Bruce Knauft (1994) states, “our study of... human egalitarianism refers almost exclusively to political relations among adult men” (p. 182). The creation and reinforcement of norms that make egalitarianism happen among foragers has been previously conceived of as a male endeavor, but this cannot be the case.

Humans require group life in order to survive (i.e. protection from predators, procuring food, mating opportunities), but this does not mean that all human groups have pursued survival in the same way. Different norms arise given different strategies to cope with different environments and this explains the vast cultural variation among groups of humans. The universal existence of norms for every known society suggests a fundamental political nature, however, and the striving of groups—not just individuals—to survive. In immediate-return foraging societies, where group members eat the food obtained the same day, cooperative strategies function to reduce the risk of failure in situations where food return is minimal and/or uncertain (Low 2000). In egalitarian society, no one has any entitlement to more resources or privileges than anyone else and if certain individuals attempt to take more resources they are “leveled-down” by other group members.

The relationship between economic roles and political roles in foraging group life has been noted by anthropologists. Since every able-bodied adult shares in the provisioning of food, every adult has autonomy to make decisions to direct his or her own life. All adults, men and women alike, participate in decision-making and conflict resolution where it affects them or where they may have influence in accordance with their experience and wisdom. The dependence that defines women’s status in modern industrialized nation-states, therefore, did not exist in band or foraging societies. Leacock (1978) states,

[t]hat women were autonomous in egalitarian society—that is, that they held decision-making power over their own lives and activities to the same extent that men did over theirs—cannot be understood unless the nature of individual autonomy in general in such society is clear (p. 247).

Autonomy refers to the decision-making power of the individual, of course, but is not simply a matter of individual decisiveness and initiative. Autonomy also involves sensitivity to others because in foraging life there is a positive relationship between group well-being and individual well-being (Leacock 1978). Pro-social behaviors must be enforced by positive and negative sanctions and are necessary to maintain the balance between group and individual interests.

It has been suggested that cooperative behavior was enforced via sanctions to level the competitive playing field for males. In striving for mating opportunities and reproductive success, males compete for dominance, which often results in few winners and many losers. Boehm (1999) contends egalitarianism is the result of the losers (i.e. the lower-status males) convincing would-be dominant males to cooperate by using social sanctions known as “leveling mechanisms” (i.e. social ostracism, shaming, gossip, and exclusion). This is reasonable, but does not entail consideration of autonomous females in the creation and enforcement of cooperative norms.

Autonomous individuals want to remain autonomous, so forming coalitions to encourage pro-social behavior and punish deviants makes sense. It is clear how cooperative behavior enforced via sanctions enables autonomy—individuals are largely left to make their own decisions as long as they do not subvert group interests—but how is autonomy gendered? To answer this question one must consider whose interests are advanced by particular norms. The possible male interests involved are suggested by Boehm (1999), but what of female interests?

Understanding how females allocate their time and energy between bringing in food, walking and resting, avoiding predation, reproducing and caring for infants (Hrdy 1999) is an important aspect of understanding autonomy and the creation of cooperative norms in foraging societies. Patricia Draper (1976) notes that !Kung women, for example, must know where to find food items, know whether they are in season, and keep oriented in the bush while walking 16 km or more a day carrying a full day’s harvest and usually a child (see also Hrdy 1999, p. 197–204, 496, 499 and 502). Ancestral females did not care for offspring in isolated homes but in “complex ecological and social setting[s]” (Hrdy 1999, p. 45). The trade-off between staying alive and breeding is a decision males do not have to make. The allocation of bodily resources to personal growth and health, fetus or infant growth and health, and single or multiple offspring growth and health is part of women’s life history trade-offs. Maintaining certainty in their position in the lunch line, so to speak, is of greater concern to females than males due to the fundamental trade-off between somatic effort and reproductive effort. Cooperative norms such as food-sharing are not merely good for all individuals in situations of scarcity or uncertainty, but essential for those who risk depletion of bodily health upon becoming pregnant.

In terms of whose interests are advanced by food-sharing, autonomous females seem to benefit not only because they hedge against future uncertainty by implementing a “policy” of food-sharing, but since they gather 60–80% of the calories consumed by the group (Tooby and DeVore 1987) they also reinforce a norm of fairness. When high-calorie meat is procured by male hunters, they must share with the group. As previous studies have shown (e.g. Lancaster 1978; Zihlman 1981), female gathering groups more consistently provision the group with life-sustaining nutrients than male hunting groups. Autonomy involves gendered considerations in the trade-off between somatic and reproductive effort as well as fairness in allocating food resources, but also in control over reproduction.

The balance between somatic and reproductive effort in an environment of scarcity is a question of survival, so mothers who were “more discriminating about which babies they cared for, fared better” than those who were not (Hrdy 1999, p. 450). In terms of maternal infanticide and abandonment, human mothers more closely resemble litter-bearing animals than other primates who give birth to one baby at a time. Although seemingly “unnatural” by modern standards, the behavioral response to inopportune births has been to abandon or terminate care. Mobile labor groups of females, physically separated from male scrutiny, would be able to make decisions regarding pregnancy, birth, and infant care. Females seek the optimal breeding situation for themselves and their offspring and males seek theirs. This results in varying compromises—some stable and some not—because maternal and paternal interests do not necessarily coincide. What keeps one sex in a disadvantageous arrangement is where ideology and human psychology come in. The tensions that form the foundation of modern power relations between men and women stem from concealed ovulation and paternal uncertainty. Autonomy provides for female control over pregnancy, birth, and child care (Hrdy 1999).

As Boehm (1999) and Knauft (1994) suggest, our understanding of foraging life is based entirely on our understanding of egalitarian relations among adult men, but we know that females form coalitions with other females (i.e. in labor groups for gathering, sometimes hunting, and child-rearing). We also know that they form coalitions with males to create and enforce norms of cooperation. In foraging societies women are as likely as men to curb the deviant behavior of “upstarts”—those who attempt to disrupt the social balance by violating group norms (Boehm 1999, p. 8–9; see also Power 1991, p. 42; Erdal and Whiten 1994; and Knauft 1994). Women, however, are highly unlikely to be upstarts themselves (see Daly and Wilson 1988; but see also Campbell 1984, 1993, and 2002, p. 208–232). By playing an active role in the creation and reinforcement of social norms that encourage cooperation by punishing deviants, females transcend their gender specific labor and child-rearing groups to enforce norms that are good for female interests as well as group survival. This counter-dominance strategy may have deeper roots than human egalitarian society. Hrdy (1981, 1999) and Smuts (1995) illustrate that in nonhuman primates, females are often able to neutralize male interests when they do not coincide with their own and/or that of their group and do so individually as well as through coalitions.

Anthropologists contend that females were autonomous (i.e. Lee 1979, 1982; Leacock 1978), thus having decision making power over their lives. They also note the females play a role in counter-dominance (i.e. Boehm 1999; Knauft 1994) illustrating that the female role in group life was far from passive. Still, interpretations of the ethnographic record suggest we know little of female political behavior. Recall Gowaty’s (1997) assertion that both early sociobiologists and feminists came to the conclusion that all social acts are political. Autonomous females, acting alone as well as in coalitions, worked to promote and protect their reproductive, economic, and social interests. Egalitarian political arrangements lasted for thousands of years and this cannot merely be attributable to male coalitions of the weak as posited by Boehm (1999).

I contend the “proof,” if you will, of political females in the Pleistocene and throughout human history comes most convincingly not from reinterpretations of ethnographic records, but from recent studies of the human brain. Human brains are the product of millions of years of evolution. Brain size began growing exponentially in the genus Homo around 2.0 million years ago. Suggested causes of the increase in brain size have included: warfare, tool use, throwing, hunting, social intelligence, and language. Many of the suggested causes are what have historically been considered the exclusive domain of human males, but most of these activities are now known to occur among higher primates as well as humans of both sexes. For example, in addition to hunting, making warfare, and using tools, chimpanzees are intensely social and have considerable intelligence. One of the features that make us distinctively human is that human brains “do” language—and female brains appear to do it differently than male brains. Though there is tremendous overlap in brain structures and what males and females are cognitively capable of, each sex excels in certain lateralized skills. Verbal abilities are relatively enhanced in females and there is reason to believe such skills contributed to fitness (Falk 1997).

Anatomically, women’s brains have a higher density of neurons; three structures that connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain are larger or more frequently present in women; and the normal lopsided shape of the brain is more often reversed in females, as is the typical asymmetry in the relative sizes of the top surfaces of the temporal lobes. This matters because what the brain does is ultimately dependent on what the brain is. Recent studies suggest that men and women have identical volumes of amygdala, hippocampus, and dorsal prefrontal cortex. Women have larger orbital frontal cortices than men, however, and the larger volume devoted to emotional modulation may relate to behavioral evidence for differences in emotion processing (Gur et al. 2002).

Tanaka, Panter and Winborne (1988) find that in measurements of social information processing there is a difference between men and women in the “cognitive persistence” domain. This domain refers to an individual’s demonstrated tendency to utilize limited amounts of information provided in a given situation by evaluating and processing all aspects of the information deliberately and completely. They found that women, in particular, exhibit a tendency towards a multidimensional focus. Although studies of intelligence have found no consistent sex differences cross-culturally (see Hyde 1984, 2005) this does not negate the fact that men’s and women’s brains are wired differently. One of the small but statistically significant differences in skills related to this difference is that women excel at language and decoding social interactions (Falk 1997).

Group life in human evolution influenced the way humans process information and human neurocognitive systems developed to utilize information about people that comes from everyday language and gesture. In a series of neuroimaging studies, Tania Singer and her colleagues have found that perceptions of fairness become salient and drive rapid social learning that results in evaluations of others and, inevitably, the individual’s decision about how to act (Singer et al. 2004). All of this takes place unconsciously and in fractions of a second. Our brains quickly perceive and make sense of social information that in turn, direct behavior (i.e. Can I trust this person to share food? Can I trust that this person will not abandon my offspring?).

In foraging society there is a positive relationship between group success, individual well-being, and survival (Leacock 1978), so sensitivity to others’ intentions is an essential aspect of foraging group life. Being able to discern others’ likely behaviors as well as to communicate one’s own would most certainly aid in survival and reproduction. Dunbar (1993) suggests that language is used to impart and absorb all kinds of information, not merely immediately critical information such as the location of water or the movement of herds of animals, but information that pertains to the traits and behaviors of other people. Language may have “evolved to allow individuals to learn about the behavioral characteristics of other group members more rapidly than was feasible by direct observation alone” (p. 681). The ability to detect cheaters and deviants would have been important for group life, but mate choice is another important area of consideration which involves gendered strategies and is directly related to fitness.

Hall (1984) conducted a meta-analysis that summarized sex differences in nonverbal behavior as well as men and women’s ability to comprehend the nonverbal behavior of others. She found that aggregated across studies, women are better at comprehending nonverbal information, posing emotions with their facial expressions, and tend to be more facially expressive than men. Hall also found that women tend to have more expressive gestures than men. Although both males and females benefit from perceiving the intentions of others and directing their behavior accordingly, particularly good language skills may have been selected for in females because they have more to lose from bad decisions. Females have more to lose from uncooperative social arrangements due to their vulnerability during pregnancy as well as their greater parental investment. One way to hedge against future uncertainty is to create norms of cooperation and fairness, but another way is to become adept at reading others’ emotion states.

Social dilemma experiments have been another excellent platform for testing differences in male and female behavior since they are strategic environments where subjects must consider the likely actions of others when making a decision (Eckel and Grossman 1998). Such experiments test the extent to which people trust that others will cooperate or act fairly. Evidence suggests that, on average, females tend to be more cooperative and generous than males in group situations (Aranoff and Tedeschi 1968; Ortmann and Tichy 1999; Eckel and Grossman 1998) and groups of women contribute significantly more in public goods games than mixed groups or all male groups (Nowell and Tinkler 1994). Eckel and Grossman (1998) find that on average, women donate twice as much as men to their anonymous partners when factors that confound cooperation are eliminated. Depending on whether the games are conducted face-to-face or in anonymous conditions, females more cooperative behavior may be signaling trustworthiness which elicits cooperation and fairness from others.

Kennedy (2003) makes a strong empirical case that in a majority rule, group-based decision making situation, female behavior is motivated more by altruistic concerns and that women have a strong preference for universalistic solutions. Eckel and Grossman (1998) suggest that the observed differences between women and men are not about a difference in selfishness, but “a difference in how they respond to risk” (p. 728). A cooperative disposition and preference for universalistic outcomes is more likely to arise from women based on evolutionary logic. Successful group living meant navigating personal and group interests and recognizing that contributing to group life by creating and reinforcing norms of cooperation was more likely to ensure autonomy and thus, control over reproduction, etc. Cooperation reinforces trust, but if cooperation ceases, it is men that quickly cease empathic considerations and seek revenge (Singer et al. 2006). If this sounds like a potential Hobbesian state of nature, all the more likely that autonomous females had a hand in the creation and reinforcement of cooperative norms. We are the descendants of females who had the skills to navigate pursuit of their interests amidst conflicting interests—not by brawn but by brain.

Evidence of political females in foraging society comes from studies in paleoneurology, cognitive neuroscience, and behavioral economics in addition to anthropology. If ancestral females were passive, apolitical recipients of provisioning by dominant, political males, we would not see the sexual dimorphism in brain structures with certain cognitive advantages going to females. Understanding the ultimate causes of sexual dimorphism in human brains—and differences in emotion processing and language skills—is important toward reconsidering the role of women in egalitarian society and throughout human evolution.


According to Boehm (1999), Power (1991), and Lee (1982), because of women’s predominant role in reproduction as well as the production of food in foraging societies, they are positioned to be as likely to emerge as leaders as men. Lee (1982) observed that among the !Kung, women’s participation in group decision making is greater than that of women in most other tribal and industrial societies, but is not equal to men’s. Boehm’s (1999) extensive survey of foraging societies reveals that male–female authority varies among societies with small to large advantages going to males. Much of the data that exists is difficult to explain, however, as many observations did not adequately account for female behavior.

Immediate-return foraging societies are basically consensual polities, but leaders do emerge. Certain individuals are deferred to in situations where their expertise or wisdom may help make a decision or solve a problem, but this often amounts to little more than weight of opinion. Deference to others may mean that for a short time some individuals have influence, but there is no power to coerce (Power 1991; Lee 1982). Anthropologists have referred to this as “charismatic leadership” since it is often based on “personal attributes, personality, skills, knowledge, wisdom and so on” (Power 1991, p. 47). Among the various foraging societies there are as many forms of leadership and leaders typically emerge in situations where wisdom or guidance may be useful. As a general rule, leaders are constrained by leveling mechanisms to keep any one individual from exercising authority over the group and otherwise infringing on others’ autonomy. These are not unlike the social sanctions used more generally to maintain egalitarian norms.

Lee’s studies reveal that !Kung leaders have been excellent speakers, diplomatic mediators, charming, gruff, fiercely independent, grandmotherly, soft spoken, feisty, and mellow. No single personality type is evident among !Kung leaders, but what is common is an absence of certain traits (e.g. arrogant, overbearing, boastful, or the desire for wealth or acquisitiveness). The !Kung only permit egalitarian leaders—those who exercise authority for the good of the group and not for personal gain. Self-serving traits bar an individual from emerging as a leader (Lee 1982).

It is likely that many women emerged as “charismatic leaders” within egalitarian society as they were adept at navigating individual and group interests to ensure survival and reproduction and had wisdom to share in this regard. Since charismatic leaders are fleeting positions that arise as needed, however, they are unlikely to be recorded by ethnographers. It has been the practice of many anthropologists to look for leadership that looks like leadership as we know it—which has been largely gendered male. A Darwinian feminist approach suggests we consider whether male and female leadership ought to necessarily look the same. Female spheres of influence and life experiences make them qualitatively different leaders not just quantitatively less leader-like than males.

In Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy (2000), she argues that openness is the “communicative moment of taking the risk to trust in order to establish and maintain” the relations necessary to sustain discourse about the issues that we face (p. 58). Recognizing political discourse as a relationship and taking responsibility for one’s relationship to their interlocutors requires listening to them. Much like foraging group life where autonomy requires not simply individual decisiveness and initiative, but also sensitivity to others, modern political arrangements require the skills to navigate the dynamic interaction of individual interests and group goals. A “level of recognition” of others as rights holders (or, if you prefer, autonomous persons) “is a condition rather than a goal of political communication” if the aim of politics is to solve problems justly (p. 61). What female leaders say and how they say it, as well as their non-verbal communication, often signals inclusiveness and recognition. Was this the political strategy of females in foraging society to inculcate trust and foster cooperation? Perhaps how women lead is not a new development and, if there is any evidence for this hypothesis, it would seem that democratic proclivities have very deep roots indeed.

In a meta-analysis of leadership style, Eagly and Johnson (1990) found that women tended to adopt a more democratic or participative style and less autocratic or directive style than did men. Research in political science indicates that women neither use nor perceive their positions of power like their male colleagues. In legislative committees, female chairs tend to use their position to facilitate or moderate committee discussion. Male chairs tend to use their position to control witness testimony, direct committee discussion, and join in the substantive debates (Kathlene 1995; Rosenthal 2000). Regarding the frequency of speaking in group decision-making scenarios, males tend to over-shadow females in the studies of foraging societies. Men “appear to do about two-thirds of the talking in discussions” and “act as group spokespersons far more frequently than do women” (Lee 1982, p. 44). According to previous interpretations of the ethnographic record, this has translated into political males and apolitical females. A more nuanced approach is required. If the decision made by the group was in accord with female interests, what difference does it make that males did the majority of the talking in discussions? If group outcomes are consistent with female interests, do those who talk the most or act as spokespersons really hold the political power?

Lyn Kathlene (1995) found that regardless of the subject matter of a legislative bill, when women committee members do not sit next to each other at the hearing, men—both as committee members and witnesses—dominate the hearing. Males typically speak first and longer. Hearings chaired by males have the highest percentage speaker turnovers through interruptions—regardless of the substantive issue at hand. Male committee members and witnesses both make and receive more interruptions than women committee members and witnesses. When women sit together and are able to make eye contact with each other, however—such as when the committee seating is arranged in a V-shape rather than a long straight table in front of the witness table—it appears to have a moderating effect on the dynamics associated with male-chaired hearings. When women sit together they are more active participants in the hearing.

Females have significant influence without emulating male leadership. In Kathlene (1995) and Rosenthal’s (2000) examinations of legislative committee behavior, there was no statistically significant positive relationship between words spoken and successful votes on legislation. Dominating hearings and political discussions does not necessarily translate into individual interests becoming group outcomes. Further, a nuanced and interesting observation from the Kathlene (1995) study is the effect of women’s non-verbal behavior on group dynamics. Regardless of the topic of legislation being considered, the way in which women are present and are able to signal emotion to male and female colleagues makes a difference in group outcomes. These are fascinating areas of research requiring further investigation (see Hannagan et al. 2008, under review).


Anthropologists consider the foraging model to be the most successful way of life ever achieved. All people everywhere on earth lived this way until the emergence of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago. Although there is variation among foraging models there is general agreement that the immediate-return foraging system is characterized by autonomous individuals comprising small groups (Power 1991). People were able to survive living in this way for thousands of generations because of their direct response to the environment—and the environment included not only the threat of predation, weather conditions, the availability of food and water, but also the other individuals that make up their groups. It is the creation of norms and the dynamic interactions between autonomous females and males pursuing their individual and group interests that provide the back-drop for current psychological and behavioral repertoires. Evidence for egalitarian political organization in the Pleistocene is not a “just so” story, but arises from climate records, archeological records, fossil records, as well as evidence from observations of past and present-day foraging groups (Shultziner et al. 2008, under review).

We need look no further than the front page of today’s newspaper to see the degree of despotism human beings are capable of, but as Boehm (1999) suggests, the politics of the immediate-return foragers has “profoundly affected our evolving social nature” (p. 3). He specifically suggests our current experience of moral life is a by-product of pro-social behavior among our foraging ancestors and that the seeds of democracy were planted with coalitions of the weak dominating the strong. My synthesis and interpretation of research from paleoneurology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and political science—based upon the foundation provided by Darwinian feminists—suggests that we can attribute our current experience of moral life to ancestral females as much as to ancestral males. This is a proposition that requires further exploration and hypothesis testing.

Despite the contributions of Darwinian feminists, it is not widely understood outside the life sciences that females had an active and variable role in human evolution (see Hager et al. 1997). Their approach has not been to simply “add women and stir” (Wylie 1997, p. 47) to previous accounts of human behavior, but to reconfigure our understanding of women and men based on varied and dynamic interactions throughout human evolution. Likewise, it is not sufficient for social scientists to merely add “sex” or “gender” as a variable in models of political behavior. The import of a Darwinian feminist approach would illuminate current research on gendered political behavior.

Quantitative political science tells us that “sex” or “gender” sometimes appears to have an effect on political attitudes and behavior and other times it does not—such as in the literature on the gender gap (e.g. Bratton and Haynie 1999; Howell and Day 2000; Kaufmann and Petrocik 1999; and Shapiro and Mahajan 1986) and critical mass (e.g. Thomas 1991, 1994; Bratton 2005). What can the mixed results from studies employing standard social science models really tell us? Feminist theorists in political science (e.g. Okin 1979; Elshtain 1981; MacKinnon 1987) have observed and reported omissions and deficiencies in the discipline’s consideration of women and politics, and gendered politics, for many years. Political behavior is inherently gendered and feminist theories of gender have often been ignored in prominent quantitative studies of political attitudes and behavior. Though there are political scientists who more carefully consider gendered political behavior (e.g. Kathlene 1995; Rosenthal 1998, 2000), this inherently gendered subject matter remains largely misunderstood.

Rational choice and behavioralism were the standards of the late twentieth-century in political science research that focused exclusively on environmental explanations of attitudes and behavior. Proving insufficient for adequately addressing political attitudes and behavior, these models have recently been challenged with the import of models and methods from the natural sciences. Despite the potential to illuminate the complex dynamics of gendered behavior, those borrowing methodologies from the natural sciences seem to be ignoring sex and gender like the empiricists of the last half-century (e.g. Orbell et al. 2004; Marcus 2002; Hibbing and Alford 2004; Alford and Hibbing 2004; but see Hannagan et al. 2008, under review; Hannagan and Hatemi 2008; and Larimer, Hannagan and Smith 2007). A problem in political science research has been acknowledging the gendered nature of political behavior on the one hand and applying adequate approaches to understanding this complex subject matter on the other, which has often divided feminist theorists and empirical political scientists into opposing camps.

The previously embraced models and methods in the social sciences face a reinvigoration of the “biology of gender” (Browne 2007, p. 2) based on current psycho-physiological research. We are at a critical time when both empirical social science and feminisms are facing reorientation. As Darwinian feminists explain, empirical science based on an evolutionary framework can be a powerful tool for understanding gendered dynamics and power relations. Widespread assumptions about male and female political behavior are ripe for reconsideration and research pertaining to women’s political role throughout human evolution requires a multi-disciplinary Darwinian feminist approach. This approach is not just good for feminists, it is good social science.


Thanks to Celeste Condit, Larry Arnhart, Doron Shultziner, and three anonymous reviewers for providing excellent feedback on earlier drafts. I am also grateful to Laurette Liesen, Barbara Burrell, and Kathryn Coe. Our conversations influenced my thinking greatly.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008