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Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology - Free to Access Article Spotlight: Joyce F. Benenson, "Human Females as a Dispersal-Egalitarian Species: A Hypothesis about Women and Status"

The editors of Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology are pleased to announce that the first article of the Special Issue tentatively titled "Power, Status, and Hierarchies," has been published. Joyce Benenson, Professor of Psychology at Emmanuel College and author of the book Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes, has authored the article, titled "Human Females as a Dispersal-Egalitarian Species: A Hypothesis about Women and Status." In honor of its release and of the author's important contributions to the field, the article has been made free to access through July. Please click on this link to go directly to the article.

A summary of the article follows below.

Human Females as a Dispersal-Egalitarian Species: A Hypothesis about Women and Status, by Joyce Benenson

 The article theorizes about women’s status competition through a comparative review of the residence patterns and mating systems of non-human female primates.

 Residence patterns

In non-human primates, residence patterns affect how rank is acquired and how females compete.

Philopatric females (where males disperse) compete intensely with contests that produce clear status hierarchies.

Dispersing females engage in less competition and form hierarchies less often, partly because they lack coalition partners in their new environments.

Dispersing females thus typically live in individualistic and egalitarian societies where they rely on scramble competition to acquire the resources.

In humans: while residence patterns are flexible women are more likely to disperse. Even in female-philopatric societies, girls and women often have fewer female kin present (i.e., fewer coalitional partners).

Hence, we’d expect women’s competition to mirror competition seen in female dispersal primates.

 Mating systems

Women have evolved from mammals who lived solitary lives to living in monogamous, or infrequently polygynous, marriages within multi-female multi-male communities.

In multi-female, multi-male societies that are male philopatric--such as humans, and our two closest living genetic relatives--scramble competition predominates and females rarely engage in direct contests for resources or status. Instead, status accrues over a lifetime.

Hence, we’d expect women’s competition to mirror scramble competition with few direct contests for resources or status, and status accruing over a lifetime.

These patterns predict that girls and women should minimize competition by

  • interacting with only one or two trusted female companions at a time,
  • publicly insisting on equality,
  • avoiding direct competition in favor of disguised competitive tactics when necessary, and 
  • challenging status demarcations.

A review of the literature encompassing women and girls suggests this is so.