Similarities in Female Gender Roles Among Consumerist Based Societies and Pastoralist Cultures in Kenya




The parity of female and male ascribed statuses have historically risen and fallen according to the culture and social climate in which they exist. This is to say the ebb and flow of equality among men and women often depend on the chosen mode of living the questioned culture utilizes. Modernization and a globalizing economy have created awareness for the continuing parity of both male and female sexes. The peoples of Rural Kenya and North America are superficially as diverse from one another in many aspects of social equality but utilize the same framework to subjugate the female gender in times of environmental stressors or political lobbying. This correlation between the sexes and equality in the public and domestic spheres has a major dependency to be based on the production of wealth, food supply, or subsequent lack thereof. A comparison of these two cultures that practice gender stratification have  revealed a close link to the production or amassing of basic needs with the practice of  relaxing or enforcing of patriarchal domination. I am going to present an abbreviated history of how female gender roles are not fixed but fluctuate among their cultures based largely on environmental conditions and availability of sustainment sources even in contemporary times. Through my research I hope to prove the moderate elasticity and varying nature of hierarchical differentiation, achieved and ascribed statuses within these two distinct cultures. I will evaluate its maladaptive consequences to the psyche of the female gender as well as the adaptive implications it offers in emerging society.


The notion of differentiation between the sexes has been a staple in the lineage of humanity possibly since its very inception. Presumably humans sought to divide work details amongst the men and women in ways which suited them both physically and offered some limited protection from the dangers of the world in which they lived. These actions where as much a protective measure to secure the safety and lineage of future generations via the female reproductive ability as well as place a value or status on the female sex. Within all the iterations of societal constructs we have explored in our collective existence, there has been a marked divide between the roles of woman as compared to those of men. In the interests of this paper we will narrow our view of civilization and restrict it only to those of the Masai, a rural people of Kenya who live in Western Africa, and their cultural counterpoint, the American peoples of North America. Female ascribed statuses have often covered various and extreme forms. They can be a matrilocal existence in which the focus of all economic and social activities centers on a matriarchal figure that controls the norms and laws of their community.

And across the spectrum, the other extreme is a patrilocal society where women of eligible can be essentially purchased through a bride wealth and become the property of the new husband or husband’s family as though the wife is a commodity similar to currency or prestige.(Kottak 2000:464-465)

The Masai of Kenya are a society of nomadic pastoralists that roam the open savanna and grasslands of Eastern Africa. Their culture is deeply embedded in the lands and ranges which they graze their cattle. This semi arid and often dangerous environment can be harsh and unforgiving at times which has caused the Masai to adopt a strongly patriarchal structured society that values regimentation and traditions that reign from generations prior. It is under these environmental conditions the Masai have developed their ability as expert herders of cattle and small livestock as the sole means of survival. The daily routine in tribe life is compartmentalized and rigidly constructed. The men assume the roles of both herdsmen and warriors for their people. These roles, which are presented to the men while in their respective age groups (women also undergo their own unique age defined strata as well) are what is key to understanding the domestic-public dichotomy. These practices clearly define social divisions or gender stereotypes and are what have become ingrained in the traditional framework of the tribe’s history.  To gain more comprehension, an explanation of the general social rites of passage would be beneficial.

Masai men are born into and age grade that exists in a continual four year period. The grade is uniquely named and this group will progress through various social functions (young herdsman, circumcision, warrior grade, married family men, and finally village elders) together. This collective liminality creates solidarity for the group and lasts their entire lives. These groups largely only interact with each other and can suffer social consequences for any unsanctioned interactions with younger age grades. The women do not pass through a recognized graded rite as do the males but they do receive a social ranking based on their function in society (age based) that closely resembles that of their male contemporaries. The women negotiate their social journeys from the beginnings as “young girls who aid in domestic responsibilities (endito)with their mothers , to older young girls whose responsibilities are to be the girlfriends (intoyie) of the warrior grade males” and live with them in their emanyata or “warrior village.”(Hodgson 1999:44-45) After this stage the women then become circumcised and are then eligible to marry (they also then live in the enkang or “family village”), bear children and ultimately attain their final social category (koko) which is similar to a “grandmother” who cares and directs the youth through their responsibilities. The different “social gradients are all met with various rituals and linguistic differentiations among the women” (Hodgson 1999:48).

Historically, Masai men are polygamous, which is they can marry as many women as they can rightfully support or take care of (Burton, Kirk 1979:845-846). The women present in these situations are then placed into a hierarchy of prominence. The first wife is the head boss of all the other wives in the “home place” or Boma and as such enjoys the most autonomy. Her son has first priority to the inheritance of the auxiliary livestock (similar to the amount paid in bride wealth) and status of the husband. She is also entitled to trade or sell any overage or surplus of milk or hides that she or the other wives produce. These women also have a stake in the sales, slaughter, and trading decisions that are proposed by the male head of household.  A focal responsibility of this wife is to ensure the “background” duties of daily life are completed by the other wives. These duties range from the obvious child rearing, cleaning, and cooking, to as far as hunting small game, trading for provisions from other tribes or caravan routes to major trading posts and even the construction of the homes in which their families reside in. The Masai woman’s caring of the house small stock and cattle are crucial to the dietary and economic survival of the tribe. They are also responsible for the social networking of  their society. These interconnections with outside entities ensure a means of survival and add another dimension to the economy of the tribe. These actions are centrally imperative to the overall survival and maintenance of the tribe.

Masai men generally perceive these duties of the women beneath their social level as men and will not interfere or concern themselves in their undertaking (Hodgson 1999:48). In this system Women are granted an area of control among the society but never a commanding or undeniable position that cannot be rescinded. In fact, the Masai women, when they are of eligible age, often become a commodity in that they can be traded for and sent away as payment or tribute to further the social or monetary goals of their family. These women bring a bride wealth or progeny price when they are married off which is usually paid in the common form of currency in the Masai culture, cattle. These women do not choose their husbands nor do they enjoy any recourse for their betrothement. They are allowed to divorce only under specific circumstances but the wedding payment must be returned causing a situation that can be too costly for parties to resolve and often results in a consented separation or a rearrangement of living space terms. The cultural indoctrination during the formative years of life prescribes the submissive behavior as exampled in this text in regards to the social standing of the female Masai. The domestic-public dichotomy is further widened by trained examples of desired behavior of the male component which is enforced by social mores.  The ascribed status of these female tribeswomen is seen as inescapable or unavoidable and causes a cyclic function of repetition.

Contemporary American life as it is known today is the culmination of a historically brief and variegated background. As a nation in a global neighborhood, the United States does not have a cultural depth or uni-linear history as that of the much older Masai. But even in this apparent superficial aberration there exists an essence of coincidence that can, given the proper conditions, mirror the African culture and then be the proper basis or platform to evaluate and explore the similarities that are present.

Since America’s departure from colonial rule, this society has travelled along an ever evolving track attempting to value the rights and privileges of the citizens and develop a cultural equality in that there are no overt social restrictions on free will. Under these stipulations citizens can exercise a number of personal choices. Women, for example, are free to choose their own professions, attend higher educational facilities, own, sell, trade property as they see fit. On a statutory level, women’s rights are equal to the rights of men. This development was not always the norm. Women’s rights have only recently evolved during a time when men were mostly engaged in warfare and not present to tend the growing industrial sector and the need for skilled/ unskilled labor was suited to the hiring of female workers (Kottak 2008:467).

From then the country has since recognized the efforts of women and made allowances to promote equality in the judicial forum. This “punctuated equilibrium”  from not having a great social presence to suddenly attaining gender parity through the visage of the law has not been fully reconciled against the traditional male views on gender stereotyping that persisted since before the acceptance of female rights. Traditional American ideology dictates the men as being the greater financial earners and providers for the more submissive female and their family. This basic tradition has been the bedrock for a view of what can loosely be described as a pseudo patriarchal society that is blended or masked with an overdeveloped sense of European chivalry. In basic terms, the American way of life does not function as closely to the level of real survival in terms of the comparative lifestyle of the Masai. There is not such an acute sense of mortal danger from death or starvation in North America due to a network of services or wildly varying specialties that offer the basic and advanced human necessities such as child care, homes, vehicles, food gathering, education, medicine; that are not as easily attained by their African contemporaries. Seemingly, the American culture has more opportunity to focus less on hunting / gathering or pastoral herding and focus more on the competitive aspect of attempting to amass more of these goods and services to impress the status of the individual. Both men and women partake into this “prestige cycle” at some point during their lives and find ways to compare or rate themselves against their compatriots.

This self appraisal is a normal interaction within the society due largely to the aforementioned enculturation effort of gathering life necessities creates an opportunity to indulge in these behaviors. These random appraisals are mainly applied to the same sex during various stages of life. But this edict can also be applied to cross gender comparisons. It is in these very situations where the crux of gender roles and gender stereotyping occur the most. The society’s prestige sphere is unequivocally male dominated with most opportunities and rewards being intended or even thought of as male prerequisite. This process then delegates the female contingent’s social worth to then be relegated to fulfilling mostly care positions in a private or domestic capacity. In the other extreme, social archetypes such as the hyper achieving female which can be a successful life strategy can be socially ostracized and often overwhelmed from male and sometimes female viewpoints. In this contradictory existence of social equality while contributing an equally important or in some cases more important and efficient function in society we have a basis to compare these two unlikely related culture phenomena.

The North American contemporary women as well as the contemporary Masai tribeswoman exist in very different social arenas. Their goals and customs are not alike but the conditions under which they operate are quite similar. It has developed in this paper that the indicator of customary treatment of women stems not from male financial or physical superiority viewpoints but rather the framework in which they both exist.

The Masai culture is a highly specialized entity with few choices for survival and small margins for exploitative creativity to expand interests. This survival methodology which stifles some unconventional ideas and strengthens traditional ways is not uncommon amongst pastoralist economies. The mode of survival is set and upheld to stave of deviations that can cause harm to human linearity. In this configuration there are not many methods or pathways to individuality or expressions of self solidarity for a sex that does not directly control the monetary or subsistence means in the group nor provide a security function. Women have been traditionally held in a domestic coloration. Their place is perceived to be conquering home matters and completing daily minutia in the areas of child care and food gathering. These are intended to support the male segment that provides the valued or prestige responsibilities of successful herding, warfare, raiding, making children, wiving multiple partners, etc (Burton, Kirk 1979:846-847). These tasks have socially outperformed the female responsibilities and thus are valued greater in the society. Although women do inevitably contribute greatly in their areas of influence, they also make major decisions or fiscal suggestions that are more than likely heeded by the men. But these “invisible” interactions are seldom carried out in public. Why then are the social balances skewed then in terms of public-private life? Research indicates a reasonable solution is that this behavior is a product of male competition with other males for an alpha-status in their social circles. This training of behavior to be completely autonomous and in control of all manners of existence seems to drive the public forum of the female’s second class status in these situations.

Unlike their counterpoint in East Africa, the modern woman of North America today has more social opportunity to explore their own individuality as they see fit. In their society there is no prominent need to gather, hunt, or even care for children or food sources in the same capacity as the Masai do. But beneath this outward manifestation lie the same essence of gender stratification. Women in the workforce may fully compete directly with male competitors and even hold positions overseeing and managing them. Today women who are professionals are working longer and more rigorously than ever before. They take less vacation days, work later into their pregnancies and may even be reluctant to take any form of maternity or post partum leave from work (Hynes, Singley 2005:379). These circumstances indicate that women are either biologically better suited to work or there is an underlying need to prove oneself in the workplace to defend their position from re-habitation by a male or even female competitor. The latter is where I believe the phenomenon is headed. American women’s choices are similar as other cultures only not in the same phenotypic manner. For American women the roles of social hierarchy are constantly prevalent in decisions to work later, longer, or not take holiday due to appearing not fit to execute the position currently held or one that is being vied for. These conditions are also amplified by the social implications for achieving too much in a society that so regularly praises personal achievement. In this area both men and women can be the aggressors. It is possible for women to be subject to communal backlash for not embracing the unspoken gender strata norms that conflict with the personal achievement ethos. This backlash is not physical as may be found in other societies, but more likely psychologically in nature. This is the basis of gender stratification for this example. The female members are not totally of their free will but are sometimes subjugated with mixed messages about acceptable behavior for the sex (Hynes, Singley 2005:378). In this vein direct comparisons to male competition, superiority and social position can be made as with the Masai.


As previewed earlier in this paper the exact reasons for the adoption of this social mode of existence seem rooted in the composition of the local environment. These Environments obviously have limitations and inherent dangers imparting the necessity for humans to then assign roles and obligations based according to perceived ability and a sense of moral obligation. As in the Masai, the choice of cattle herding as a means of survival is a dangerous concept in the often sparse and dangerous savannah. The culture collectively places a high value on the control of livestock, which often results in thefts or full on raiding to gain control this finite resource. The positive adaptation of this system is the highly systematic and regimented structure under which the society exists. This deeply traditional institution has clearly defined areas of responsibility for both men and women that have served it well and have allowed these people to survive for thousands of years in such difficult terrain.

There is a similar dichotomy among the North American peoples. Although the resources needed here are not primarily grown or herded but accumulated through an advance in social status. This mode of survival has been divided by a traditional ethos of males solely providing for their families to justify their position among the male working society (Bradbury 1995:461). This is now being offset with the continued advancement of female status among the population. This new and different ideology is in conflict with the adherence to more traditional ways of greater female submissive nature. There is a shift occurring that is slowly evolving to accommodate this new social event.

Both of these cultures display the same negative parameters in regards to the conditioning methods they employ. Firstly, I believe the way in which women are ranked in the hierarchy of social order is not a maladaptive measure of itself but rather a cultural adaptation based on past experience. This is not to say that the unethical treatment of women is permissible but the manner in which they historically have survived has more to do with that cultures evolutionary modification to their respective locations. To call ones culture set maladaptive is not a methodical approach I wish to make claim to.

Secondly, the real maladaptation lies within the unwillingness to adopt a changing cultural paradigm; one that does not recognize a changing variable and exploit its new value in the emerging equation to progress that said civilization. The action to suppress this evolution of balance in the public arena may be a reaction out of fear rooted in maintaining control in society of a certain sex. Also it may be suppressed merely because of the outright competition posed by an emerging group that can change the control dynamic and alter the traditional roles already accustomed by the majority males.


In conclusion, the maladaptive aspects of female gender roles among a male dominated culture is largely based not within the structure of a given culture but more psychologically based toward male domination and competition for prestige, power and control of resources and property. These two cultures when studied reveal that gender stratification becomes an independent issue separate to cultural hierarchy and dependent upon outside influences to affect the mildness or severity of the stratification. In my research I have exampled both the minimum influence of strict cultural framework on stratification and revealed the root issues that inspire these behaviors to persist. In these modern times, the vast abundance of communication and ease of access to a worldwide amount of cultural and scientific data should work to aid us in placing a higher priority to the investing in and improvement of society. In this era of knowledge we can better understand ourselves and offer solutions to cultural and sex based relations.

Works Cited

1)     Bradbury, Thomas N.

1995 Assessing the Four Fundamental Domains of Marriage. Helping Contemporary Families. Family relations 44(4): 459-468.


2)     Burton, Michael and Lorraine Kirk

1979  Sex Differences in Maasai Cognition of Personality and Social Identity. American Anthropologist 81(4): 841-873.

3)     Hodgson, Dorothy L.

1999  Pastoralism, Patriarchy and History: Changing Gender Relations among Maasai in Tanganyika, 1890-1940. The Journal of African History 40(1): 41-65.


4)     Hynes, Kathryn and Singley, Susan G.

2005  Transitions to Parenthood: Work-Family Policies, Gender, and the Couple      Context. Gender and Society 19(3): 376-397.


5)     Kottak, Conrad Phillip

      2008  Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity. New York: McGraw-Hill


A personal comparison/contrast essay of the main character in Tom Whitecloud’s Iconic reading: Blue Winds Dancing

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” This statement is an iconic quote made by the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. People often look different, talk different and have different viewpoints but almost always have the same end result in mind. Both Tom Whitecloud’s character in the story “Blue Winds Dancing” and I have many differences in almost every conceivable area of measure. We are not the same race, age, or possess the same beliefs or values. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that we are the proverbial “apples and oranges”. But it is only upon closer inspection that there are such striking similarities between the two us that they seem almost nearly identical.

            The Author’s character in his story ventures away from the reservation from which he was raised and attends a college far from his home. He is not learning the history and philosophies of his ancestry but the supplant information to override those truths with Eurocentric ideals. This setting has a unique effect on him because the teachings he learns there directly contradict and seemingly belittle the traditions of his people. The protagonist comes to a conclusion that he does not fully relate to his fellow tribesman or the white students. And from this point the character makes a choice to abandon one of these ideals in favor of fully embracing the other so he leaves school and finds his way back to his reservation to be with his family.

            Similarly, I have also made choices that have led me far away from my home. I have adopted a whole other cultural mindset in addition to the one I was raised with. I accomplished this means by enlisting into the United States Marine Corps immediately after graduating from high school. This decision had greatly affected my life but did not improve it in the way in which I thought it would. I, like the protagonist,  found myself balancing two lifestyles that were not intermixable and causing growing communication problems between my personal relationships as well as my job. I elected to only focus on the choice that had more impact in my life and concluded my service to the Marines after two enlistments.

            In contrast to how the actual mechanics of each tale unravel, the end result is quite polarizing. Whitecloud’s character in the end of his story concluded that he wanted to be free and live as his people did without the added adoption of the white American culture. He returned home and was accepted back as a member of his tribal unit once again. He realized that his familial bond was too great and needed to be more prevalent in his life whereas I have not espoused the same fervor for being close to my family. Upon leaving the Marines I did not return to where my family lives but settled down farther away to establish my own identity and endeavor to make my own way. This is an interesting answer to how people approach evolving their ancestry in modern times.

            There are many interesting and varied people in the world who have so many different and unique cultural processes. A person can easily forget that the choices we all make as humans nearly always reflect the same sentiment towards some basic values that are inherent to us all: family, love, duty, responsibility are just a few. This knowledge leaves us all with the thought that maybe for all of our striking differences we are more alike than we realize…