Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Study finds matriarchal societies are good for women's health
A study of the Mosuo women, known for their matriarchy, suggests that gender roles can influence our health outcomes.
- An isolated ethnic group in China maintains a matriarchal society, much to the benefit of their health.
- The Mosuo women were not only healthier than women living under patriarchy, but were healthier than the men too.
- The findings support the idea that having a degree of autonomy and resource control is good for your health
Every debate about what is innate to humans and what is learned from society runs into the problem of having to rely on humans who live in some kind of society for reference. Claims about human nature can easily be repackaged as claims about people living in similar cultures and vice versa.
Current debates over sex, gender, and what behaviors are biologically influenced fall into this category. Claims that masculinity and femininity are biologically fixed often point to their seeming universality as evidence. However, as mentioned, these claims often rely on people raised in cultures that encourage or discourage people from taking on those traits. It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem.
One way to try and get around these problems is to find a culture that is markedly different from others. A new study on women's health has taken this route; it discovered that granting women autonomy typically given only to men leads to better health outcomes.
The Kingdom of Women
The Mosuo people are an ethnic group that lives in the Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, next door to Tibet. Long isolated from other parts of China—and insulated against the occasional upheavals that impacted other cultures—they continue to maintain cultural institutions commonly described as matriarchal or matrilineal.
Children take the name of their mother's family, who they live with all their lives. Households are run by matriarchs, often the grandmother, and inheritance goes from mother to daughter. The matriarch makes all major household decisions, including financial ones, and women do work often doled out to men in other cultures.
They are also known to practice a unique form of marriage known as a "walking marriage." In this system, a couple decides to carry on a relationship by mutual consent. They do not live together, remaining in the homes of their respective families. The man, instead, "walks" over to the woman's house for romantic rendezvous. Men have to return home by sunrise.
The relationship is carried on for as long as both parties want but carries no social or economic obligations. It is ended at any time with little difficulty. Many people often confuse this with promiscuity, but most anthropologists report it as a kind of serial monogamy, and many relationships that take this form are long term. Any children resulting from these marriages are raised by the mother's family, though the father may play a role as agreed upon by all involved. Typically, the child's uncles will play the role of father figure.
It is worth noting that men do have some power in this society; they are in charge of all things death-related, including funerals and the killing of animals. They also have some political power, though women often have most of it.
Cases like these are common among matriarchal societies, with men retaining some measure of control over their lives even if they aren't at the top often unknown to women in patriarchal societies. A variety of sources indicate that the men in this society, who are well aware of the alternatives, are often content with their situation. Mosuo villages with patrilineal traditions also exist.
Even with these caveats, it is fair to say that the women of the Mosuo are highly autonomous and have a long history of personal freedom beyond that which is known to women in many other cultures.
Medical considerations of matriarchy
Most of you will know that women tend to outlive men. Fewer of you will know that women tend to have higher morbidity than men do in spite of this.
Two manifestations of this are that women tend to have higher blood pressure than men after reaching post-reproductive age and that women of all ages tend to experience more inflammation than men. Both of these are important markers of long-term health and are commonly associated with other serious conditions.
While these issues have often been calked up to biology, a team of researchers led by Adam Reynolds of the University of New Mexico set out to see if they also existed in Mosuo society. The team recorded health measures in Mosuo individuals living in either a matrilineal or patrilineal society and compared them using statistical methods. The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker that can indicate the presence of inflammation, were measured in the blood of 371 Mosuo participants. A mere 3.6 percent of the women living in the matriarchal areas were found to suffer from high inflammation levels unrelated to other conditions. In the patrilineal communities, the prevalence of chronic inflammation in women was 8.3 percent.
Blood pressure tests showed similar results after nearly a thousand people were tested. Of the women living in matrilineal areas, only 25.6 percent had hypertension. A third of women in the comparison areas had the condition.
In a surprising find, not only did the Mosuo women living in the areas where they have control over their lives enjoy lower rates of these conditions than other women, they are healthier than their men as well. Mosuo men living in the matriarchal areas tested for high levels of CRP at double the rate of the women. They also had more hypertension, though the rate was only a slightly higher 27.8 percent.
Now, the men don't suddenly all have high blood pressure because they don't run everything. They have high blood pressure at a rate of only one percent higher than those from the patrilineal culture. If there is an adverse health effect for them caused by living in a matriarchal society, it isn't much of one.
It turns out autonomy might be good for you
Speaking to Inverse, senior author Siobhán Mary Mattison explained their interpretation of the findings:
"Women in these matrilineal communities have a great deal of autonomy in decision-making and excellent social support. Given that women tend to be at greater risk of chronic disease worldwide, the fact that they actually do better than men in this realm of health is telling."
The other authors of the study agree. They conclude that:
"Our data provide partial support for the hypothesis that the effect of matriliny on women's health is associated with increased autonomy and resource control... While patriliny has been linked to reduced autonomy and resource access for women, we demonstrate that these inequalities can have tangible biological effects that contribute to gender disparities in health."
They further note that being head of the household is inversely associated with elevated CRP levels, suggesting that autonomy grants a "protective" effect against inflammation. Lastly, they suggest that the impact of culture, resource control, and autonomy on health all be given further study to capitalize on these findings.
These interpretations would be in line with other findings that suggest racism, which similarly limits human autonomy, is terrible for people's health. The stresses of racism are linked to babies with low birth weight, heart disease, and poorer health outcomes.
While a study on a single, small, isolated group of people isn't going to be the final word on the subject, it does point towards the idea that our health is impacted by our culture and the limitations it puts on us. As we consider ways to improve the world and better understand ourselves, this study and the example of the Mosuo more generally, must be remembered.
- Females are still often invisible to medical research - Big Think ›
- Women in Countries With More Gender Equality Have Better ... ›
- Why Education Is the Factor That Most Influences Women's Health ... ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.