Theory & Science (2007)

ISSN: 1527-5558


Female Intrasexual Competition: Toward an Evolutionary Feminist Theory

Ingo, K.M.

Colorado State University-Pueblo

Mize, K.D.

Florida Atlantic University

Pratarelli, M.E.

Colorado State University-Pueblo


Female intrasexual competition is perceived as a hindrance to feminist goals of equality. This paper argues a modern feminist theory could be consistent with natural selection. The social science feminist framework believes female competition is fostered by a patriarchal power structure benefiting from a division amongst women. Feminists argue that environment plays far greater roles in shaping people than does biology, and thus cultural reform will alleviate this competition. It is an implicit assumption of the hunter-gatherer model that survival is a cooperative venture between partners. Thus, women competing over high status mates and men over a woman’s mate value are simply functional coevolved strategies; they do not impose a value-laden hierarchy. Nature may give the appearance of inequality and injustice between the sexes. However, a cognitively complex brain-mind could reconcile the meaning of coevolved strategies and educate individuals past their perceived ills toward more equitable outcomes with an evolutionary feminist theory.

Female Intrasexual Competition: Toward an Evolutionary Feminist Theory

Competition for resources is the foundation of evolutionary theory. It is the force that drives a species to survive ( Darwin, 1859). To compete with others is to behave aggressively, be it directly or indirectly. Direct aggression is most commonly associated with males and indirect aggression with females, although either sex is capable of both types. From an evolutionary standpoint, these strategies were the most compatible with solving problems faced in an early hunter-gatherer environment (in which the human mind evolved) rather than modern social environments and in fact, may be detrimental in modern times (Tooby & Cosmides, 2005). That is, the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) is most like that described by anthropologists for hunter-gatherer communities. Males evolved into a directly aggressive role to defend against predators and other males. Females evolved to aggress in ways that ensured them the least amount of physical danger when competing for food and superior mates, while also developing the capacity for direct aggression when protecting their offspring. The EEA is an important consideration in evolutionary psychology because it establishes a context for assessing the efficacy of putative preexisting adaptations in later (current) or future environments. That is, what may have been a successful adaptation to existing environmental pressures in the EEA, may no longer serve their primary purpose or may in fact become counterproductive in a changed environment. In view of tremendous changes in modernity vis-à-vis the EEA, the question of intrasexual competition (for both women as well as men) demands that the behavioral sciences make its best effort to reconcile the two. Nonetheless, because male aggression is so visible and has attracted much attention from social scientists, female aggression and its implications have received comparatively little attention even within feminist theory.

The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) contends that aggressive behavior is the result of socialization (Buss, 1999). Essentially, it suggests males are rewarded for aggression while females are discouraged from it. As a result, males tend to be aggressive and females cooperative. It is important to note that while the SSSM does not characterize exactly all the varieties of contemporary feminist perspectives, it continues to capture the essential elements of those that subscribe to the postmodern constructivist paradigm. Vandermassen’s (2005) recent work on this subject dissects the various and most prominent feminist perspectives and identifies those elements in each that allows readers to assess to what degree they fit the classical SSSM. One consistent theme is the almost conspicuous absence of the issue of competition between females. When it is addressed, it is explained as the result of a patriarchal power structure constructed and maintained by men to keep women divided and oppressed. As Wolf (2002) suggests, “Competition between women has been made part of the myth that women will be divided from one another” (p. 14). The purported “myth” is simply an example of the modern denial of a biological human nature (Pinker, 2002; Pratarelli & Mize, 2002), which some fear reduces humans to a collection of animalistic drives. This argument has ancient roots and saw its greatest popularity at the time Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species. This is because of the denialists’ refusal to accept a biological link between humans and nonhumans; not surprisingly, the latter are perceived as lower in kind. Postmodern feminist theory, in particular, exhibits this class of historical reconstruction that fits a political or religious set of presumptions and rejects any hint of biological determinism (McGettigan, 2000).

By attributing their oppression to solely environmental causes, women are sabotaging their own success as well as feminist goals of equality. Their solutions to their subjugated status are reformation and reconstruction of the current system. They suggest that raising children as androgynous, resisting the media images of what a woman should be, and activism within the political sphere will ultimately lead to equality. While these are all valid suggestions, they do not attempt to understand the root of the problem. The media does bombard women with unrealistic images; children are encouraged to behave in ways considered consistent with their sex; and women do compete with each other in damaging ways yet, focusing on the cultural representations of biological motivations does little to effect change. The position taken in this article is that by understanding why the biological motivations exist and how they combine with environmental factors to generate and shape cultural norms may very well be the first step toward change. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to explore the ways in which women have evolved to compete with each other and how understanding this competition could translate into a more rational and efficacious feminist theory.

Evidence from Human Evolutionary Psychology

Contemporary feminists have objected to evolutionary psychology for a number of important reasons worthy of explanation and clarification. They have accused the field of considering everything an adaptation, presenting “just so” stories as fact, and supporting the sociopolitical status quo, etc., ( Campbell, 2002). Regrettably, as Vandermassen (2005), McGettigan, (2000), Pratarelli (in press) and others have intimated, these accusations stem partially from a resistance to examine the state-of-the-art literature and understand its concepts. To be considered a psychological adaptation by the mainstream academic human evolutionary psychology community, a behavior must be documented in at least three different and important ways (Buss, 1999). The behavior in question must be examined (1) historically across extended periods of time, (2) it must be observed in multiple cultural contexts that allow experts to continue testing the hypothesis that the behavior is culturally universal, and (3) it must be seen in at least one other nonhuman species such that it increases fitness and reproductive success (Schmitt & Pilcher, 2004). In keeping with this methodological standard, this article will briefly examine each in later sections.

A final consideration involves examining at least some of the most frequent or popular issues raised by the detractors of evolutionary explanations in general, and for intrasexual female competition in particular. The “just so” stories accusation is leveled by detractors (cf., Rose, H., & Rose, S. (2000); Panksepp & Panksepp, 2000) who may not have had the opportunity yet to fully consider the theoretical and methodological details of the “new science of the mind” (Buss, 1999). Campbell (2002) captures the essential properties of evolutionary models by saying,

…evolutionary psychology proceeds by (1) identifying an adaptive problem that proto- humans would have faced in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, (2) developing a description of the module that is suggested to have evolved in response to this problem, including the range of inputs that would have activated it and the impact of its outputs in terms of differential survival and reproductive success, (3) formulating a description of the current environment and a map of correspondence between the ancestral and present conditions that allows specific hypotheses to be generated about the current activating inputs, and (4) undertaking tests of these hypotheses which, where appropriate, allow comparison with alternative (evolutionary or non-evolutionary) accounts. (p.24)

Evolutionary psychology is not based on speculation; it is backed by sound evidence utilizing the scientific method (Tooby & Cosmides, 2005). It also does not purport that what is natural is necessarily morally right. It does not try nor intend to support and legitimize the sociopolitical status quo. Seeking to understand the biological motivations that underlie certain human behaviors is an attempt to explain the possible origins of these behaviors, not justify them. Many feminists in fact recognize and accept biological predispositions as partial explanations of behavior. This can be inferred by their acceptance in their reactions to the notion of biological predeterminism, which Vandermassen (2005) has termed, “biophobia within feminism” (p. 85). However, the belief that all things natural and biological are therefore right, correct, and good is a product of a heuristic reasoning process called the naturalistic fallacy (Landeweerd, 2004). Feminist scholars who have unknowingly applied the naturalistic fallacy simply misunderstand the implications of biological explanations of behavior. They assume that what is natural is being justified as morally right, good, and thus legitimized. However, these are moral judgments that lack both a theoretical and scientific basis. Infanticide in primate species is a natural occurrence but it is doubtful that a rationalist would consider it right or good, it just is. The flaw in reasoning occurs when one mistakes what is for what we believe ought to be. Kant and Hume both addressed the is versus what ought to be dichotomy philosophically, but Pratarelli (2003) has recently integrated it with the human evolutionary psychology theoretical framework.

Proponents of the SSSM types of feminist models, which still enjoy considerable popularity in nonacademic communities and some proponents even within academic circles, functionally ignore the role of innate drives in the production of behavior and culture, focusing instead only on the effects of environmental triggers assuming that they entirely cause the response. This is the expected position from the social learning theory perspective, which dates back some 40 years (Bandura, 1977), well before both cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology revolutionized psychology’s understanding about the origins of human behavior, including social behavior. Therefore, consistent responses to an environmental demand by a species indicates that “the pattern of response is part of the species’ nature” (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004, p. 4). If the environment is to trigger a response, organisms require an inherited psychological processor to respond in a species-typical manner because “responses are impossible without rules of responding” (p.5). While the more progressive proponents of the SSSM-type perspectives acknowledge that “some traits result from experience and some result from genes,” it is impossible to determine which portion of any given trait can be attributed either to nature or to nurture (p.6). Social scientists argue that the environment shapes traits based upon the limits set by genes. In contrast, evolutionary psychologists contend that this is a mistake. They argue there is compelling evidence that there are inborn rules that delimit an organism’s response to variations in the environment. These “facultative traits” are what were naturally selected for resulting in the interaction of nature and nurture for any given trait (p.8).

Why and How Women Compete

Both men and women compete intrasexually to obtain a superior mate. Biologically, the purpose of selecting a superior mate is to enhance the likelihood of producing the most viable offspring. What is considered superior varies according to sex and the mating strategy employed (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Men are statistically more likely than women to pursue a short-term strategy, i.e., they have the capacity and drive to attempt to fertilize as many women as possible with as little commitment or investment as possible. Despite this difference, long-term strategies are common to both sexes. According to Sexual Strategies Theory, “[m] en prefer as long term mates women who are young and physically attractive as indicators of [health and] reproductive value and who are sexually loyal and likely to be faithful as indicators of paternity certainty” while, “[w] omen in long-term contexts…place great value on a man’s ambition, earning capacity, and professional degrees” (Buss & Schmitt, 1993, p. 226).

To understand why female intrasexual competition is a beneficial adaptation in mate selection, one must first understand the adaptive nature of the sexual division of labor in the EEA. Anthropology tells us males hunted for meat and protected the group from predation so that females were safe to gather food while bearing and raising children who would ensure the future survival of the species. While this characterization might not appeal to a majority of contemporary feminists who would prefer a more equal division of labor, it is important to note that these behaviors coevolved as a function of survival. If an adaptation increases a species’ ability to survive and reproduce, it is passed on to future generations. Because the sexual division of labor practiced by early humans met those criteria, it has perpetuated itself through the genes that express those traits in the X and Y-chromosomes. Female intrasexual competition was a necessity in an environment where survival depended on superior mate selection that led to increased food acquisition for females whose parental investment was far greater than that of males’. Despite the modern human environment, it continues today, on an unconscious instinctual level (Pinker, 2002; Pratarelli, 2003). These motivational instruction sets exist as brain circuits passed on generation-to-generation, much like the ability to breathe or the capacity to acquire symbolic language is passed on one generation to the next.

In order to acquire superior mates while maintaining the highest degree of personal safety, females evolved an indirect way of aggressing toward one another. “One way women can compete without risking their safety or compromising their lives is through acts that ostracise, stigmatise, and otherwise exclude others [female competitors] from social interaction” (Campbell, 2004, p. 3). Gossip and backstabbing are two common acts practiced by women to effectively eliminate a rival. By casting doubt on the fidelity of rivals, women are able to increase their own chances of acquiring what they believe is a superior long-term mate (Vandermassen, 2005). Prior intimate knowledge of one’s competitor also serves to validate the claims one makes against a rival.

Common forms of spreading gossip and backstabbing are seen in the emergent behaviors of high-school age adolescent females, although they have been reported in girls as young as 8 years old (Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992). The combination of higher levels of maturity and larger social networks allow females to refine their technique over time resulting in more covert and less personally damaging behaviors (Bjorkqvist et al., 1992; Campbell, 2002). Gossip, exclusion, and dirty looks were the three most frequently reported forms of indirect aggression in a self-report study of 15-16 year-old girls conducted by James and Owens (2005). Utilization of these forms of indirect aggression have been found to continue into adulthood (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Lagerspetz, 1994).

Another way that women compete is through physical appearance. Henderson and Anglin (2003) found that women whose facial features men rate as most attractive are also the women with longer life spans. The causal connection may be that pleasant facial features are an indicator of good health. The same causal association is applied universally to selecting unblemished fruits, vegetables, meats, etc., because they are less likely to cause sickness. The longer a woman lives, the more likely she is to be able to continue to care for future generations that carry on the genetic composition of she and her mate. The use of cosmetics as well as face or brow lifts, microdermabrasion, and other anti-aging creams and masks are ways in which a woman can project an enhanced facial appearance, thereby increasing her chances of being viewed as a superior mate. Moreover, since youth is also valued as a sign of reproductive fitness, women can be naturally expected to exhibit a degree of malediction and avoidance or denial of aging. Body shape, as measured by waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), is yet another way in which men evaluate a woman’s mating potential. Buunk and Dijkstra (2005) have in fact argued that, “a low WHR signals health and fertility” (p. 380). Tummy tucks, liposuction, and specialized contour enhancing undergarments are used to project a lower WHR. By presenting the physical attributes considered appealing to the majority of the opposite sex, females are able to enjoy a greater amount of selectivity and attention in mate selection.

Feminist theory refutes the use of attractiveness by women to compete for mates by citing variations in beauty standards dependent on culture. While definitions of beauty indeed vary by region, the biological motivations that underlie the drive to achieve it in fact meet the criteria of universality. Similarly, in countries where food is abundant, a more slender body may be more appealing because it signifies health, whereas in countries where food is scarce, a more ample body shape is more appealing because it signifies access to resources (Vandermassen, 2005). At their core, cultural differences are just different manifestations of identical biological imperatives necessary for the survival of the species. This is essentially what was meant by Cosmides, Tooby and Barkow (1992) when they proposed that our biology is what makes culture possible in the first place.

A conspiratorial media and advertising is another way in which feminist theory attempts to cast doubt on an evolutionary explanation of women’s competition via physical appearance. In American media where youth and beauty are valued seemingly above all else, feminism views the pressure as too great and as a result women feel pressured to conform in order to succeed. Feminists attribute the targeting of women’s appearance by advertisers as a profitable way to keep women preoccupied with issues other than equality (Wolf, 2002). Advertising, however, is a supply and demand industry. The increased numbers of beauty products ranging from cosmetics to anti-aging creams are simply a natural reaction of the industry to the increased demands of consumers. Women seek these products in order to become more competitive with one another. Feminists would undoubtedly counter with the assertion that the demand is created by the media’s representation of the ideal woman, not a biological imperative to compete. Although these social factors surely play a role, they do not explain the historical and cross-cultural (i.e., cultural universality) evidence for aggression and competition that can not possibly be the result of advertising (Buss & Shackelford, 1997). Furthermore, Buss and Duntley suggest, “This ignores a plausible suggestion that media messages are products of women’s and men’s evolved psychology that merely exploit the existing mechanisms of media consumers rather than create them” (Campbell, 1999, p.219). As before, cultural variations do not preclude biological drives, they express them.

Cross Species Evidence

One of the criteria used in evolutionary psychology to determine whether a behavior is an adaptation is its observation comparatively across other species. Non-human primates are the most commonly utilized due to their genetic proximity to humans. Through the use of field and laboratory studies, researchers have confirmed that female intrasexual competition through indirect aggression occurs in many primate species. In a study conducted in the laboratory using common female marmosets, Saltzman, Schultz-Darken, and Abbott (1996) found that female aggression aimed at another unknown female predicts dominance. This is also especially important among marmosets, a species in which only the dominant female ovulates. As the only ovulating female, the dominant marmoset is able to breed with males assured of paternity. Her offspring are also guaranteed to be cared for not only by herself but by the subordinate females as well.

In her naturalistic observations of tufted capuchin monkeys, Izar (2003) found that competition between females was highly dependent on the availability of food. Of the aggressive acts observed, “…70% of the episodes were disputes for food and 30% protection of dependent offspring” (p. 83). Due to the limited food resources in the observed monkeys’ habitat, competition for food rather than competition for superior mates appeared to drive the observed intrasexual competition. But the competitive drive exists nonetheless.

Vervaecke, Stevens, and Van Elsacker (2003) observed captive dominant female bonobos increasing their reproductive success at the expense of subordinate females. By interfering with the ovulations and copulations of the lesser-ranked females, dominants were able to mediate their relative reproductive success. These same females were also viewed harassing and killing the infants of lower ranked, unrelated females thereby securing larger amounts of resources for their own young.

Evidence for Cultural Universality

Another important criterion used to determine whether a behavior is an adaptation is its observation across cultures. If a particular behavior or class of behaviors is observed in all cultures, especially in those that may have had no direct contacts where cultural exchange was possible in recorded history, then the motivators must exist as part of the human genotype. This is an area teeming with research opportunities as it is often assumed that second-class status among women exists universally. Few formal studies have been conducted in the United States regarding female competition let alone in other countries. The evidence, however, can be gleaned by surveying countless sociology, psychology and cultural anthropology studies that intimate women compete for mates in the varieties of ways discussed earlier. Yet, the researchers who have explored this area have returned promising results.

Through the use of ethnographic interviews, surveys, and naturalistic observation,

Hines and Fry (1994) found that women in Buenos Aires, Argentina also employ more indirect forms of aggression than men. Their use of, “fashion, sex appeal, make-up, [and] hairstyles” to compete with one another are consistent with the strategies employed by women in the United States (p.232). It was also noted that the women of Buenos Aires were very socially aware. It was hypothesized that this increased social awareness may have improved their abilities to compete indirectly through various social networks. If a woman wanted to destroy a rival’s reputation, she need only determine where in the social network she could obtain possibly damaging information. This use of social awareness by women to compete has not yet been fully explored. A recent study of the Tsimane women of Bolivia (Rucas et al., 2006) extends the cross-cultural evidence concerning the use of indirect aggression by women. Further research in this area might reveal other aspects of indirect aggression. While the little research that has been conducted seems to point to the same forms of female competition within other cultures; more research is needed to confirm these results.

Toward an Evolutionary Feminist Theory

Through the course of human existence, males and females have co-evolved strategies that increase reproductive success. One of these adaptations is the use of aggression. Because of their increased parental investment, females have evolved to compete with one another using indirect means. These have been documented across-species and the several cultures that have been studied to date. While this strategy has benefited women in many ways, it is still viewed as problematic within feminist theory for the reasons addressed earlier regarding our current understanding of the role of biological predispositions. The denial of possible biological origins of female intrasexual competition thus hinders the ideals of the feminist movement. The tendency of some feminists explanations to attribute the problems within the movement to a patriarchal society is an ineffective way of establishing or justifying equality. Moreover, placing women in the role of victim effectively hinders their ability to effect change and disempowers them.

Instead, identifying the motivations and predispositions that compel women to compete with other women does not diminish feminism in any way. It does not make or support the assertion that women are, by nature, inferior and powerless to change the current power structure. Contrary to Kimmel’s (2000) fatalistic view that acceptance and understanding of biological origins implies that, “…no amount of political initiative, no amount of social spending, no great policy upheavals will change the relationships between men and women” (p. 22), the progress made by the feminists in the past is evidence that some degree of change is indeed possible. The important question is whether, in general, the postmodern feminist framework is counterproductive because it obviates women’s biological nature.

Evolutionary theory represents a sound logical and cohesive paradigm wherein the contributions of both sexes are necessary for survival. In modernity, there is little doubt that males are just as capable as females of taking care of children, and females are just as capable as men of providing for a family. As we stated earlier, nature is indifferent to human moral concerns. As long as a species adopts behaviors that increase fitness and reproductive success it does not matter which sex takes which role. If feminists were to look beyond culture to the possible underlying biological motivations that produce them, women would be able to deconstruct the roots of their oppression. By examining our past, feminists can understand the roles that men, society, and themselves have played and continue to play in the competition game. Further examination of these roles can lead to theories and practices that are more likely to result in the further success of the noble feminist goals. As evolutionary biology did for the biological sciences and medicine, a biopsychosocial model, or rather, an evolutionary feminist theory would provide a comprehensive and cohesive interactionist framework for examining female intrasexual competition that, to this point, appears to have hindered reaching the goal of gender parity.

The work of Chesler (2003) is the beginning of an understanding within feminism of the biological motivations that drive females to compete with one another. In her book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, Chesler cites the extensive research within psychology and anthropology that points to the biological causes of indirect aggression between women. She also provides a possible solution to the problems these adaptations cause within the feminist agenda. She suggests that if women are informed of these drives—thereby understanding the context within which they exist—then they will be better able to cope with the urges they produce. She suggests that women take a hard look at their belief systems and realize that while they are part of the solution to inequality, they are also part of its cause.


Research has provided compelling evidence for the development and adaptive nature of female intrasexual competition. The use of indirect aggression by women to compete with other women for superior mate selection, which is tied to food acquisition and parental investment, is both beneficial and damaging. While it increases the survival of the species, it also has the capacity to create inequities between the actors who share common species-specific interests. Some of these inequalities between the sexes have been the focus of the feminist movement for many years as it attempts to encourage sociopolitical changes to nurture gender parity. As Vandermassen and others have shown in other areas that concern feminists, the present paper examines the biological bases for intrasexual female competition in order to frame it in a scientifically objective and testable manner. It is our contention that a clear and complete non-constructivist accounting of the innate predispositions that manifest themselves in both individual and institutionalized behavior patterns—as is the case with female intrasexual competition—is a far more rational method of study. Moreover, it is necessary precondition for developing and implementing intervention programs that stand a chance of succeeding where others have struggled in the past.

The strength and efficacy of women’s biological predisposition to engage in competition over mate selection and its implications cannot be ignored because they both contribute and are part of the patriarchal system evolved in many primates, and especially in the human species. Keeping always in mind that the trap of the naturalistic fallacy threatens to derail theory development, experts need to regularly reexamine their arguments as well as their motives for promoting certain perspectives or political agendas to the exclusion of others. Thus, when we examine behavior patterns such as gossiping, backstabbing, and a focus on physical appearance as characteristics of female intrasexual competition, it is important to keep in mind that raising the biological/innateness argument in no way legitimizes the inequities that they inherently create under normal environmental circumstances. Doing so only serves to perpetuate the patriarchal society that men and women have shared in creating, but for which most agree needs to be adapted to eliminate the conspicuous inequalities apparent in modernity. Although beyond the scope of this paper, future work should continue to focus on reviewing more thoroughly both the strengths and weaknesses of both evolutionary psychology and feminism, how the two may serve to complement each other, and developing a framework for the two to work together toward a modern evolutionary feminist theory. Generating such a theory could provide a starting point from which feminists could (1) begin to understand the biological motivations that drive all cultures to treat women as second-class citizens, and (2) develop a strategic plan to address change more effectively through education aimed at providing women with the tools to recognize and effectively combat the indirect aggression of their female counterparts. After all, there is little dispute today that the single most important variable that impacts such pervasive social ills as poverty, rapid population growth, health and malnutrition (by reducing them) is the education of women (United Nations, 2002). International research in population demographics has shown that education of women always results in a reduction in family size and the improvement in living conditions as women begin to take greater control of their body, their access to resources, and their social climate in general. Given the importance of female intrasexual competition in women’s lives, education that represents it in its proper light in terms of its natural selectivity is one important step toward realizing a new modern feminist theory.


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