Adult women, both in the U.S. and in Zambia, are in competition for material resources and the men that provide them. The Zambian sub-elite women studied by Schuster are described as being sexually assertive and the matrilineal tradition of most Zambian tribes suggests that paternal confidence would not be high even among more traditional Zambians. The same is likely to be true in the matrifocal communities found toward the bottom of the social ladder in stratified industrial societies. A woman in such a community, therefore, could expect many direct attempts by other women to attract her mate for a short-term relationship, whereas this would be less of a threat to women in communities where male investment is high and women are less interested in short-term relationships. A larger number of sexually unrestricted competitors, rather than just a shortage of desirable men, maylie behind the greater female-female aggression found in communities with low male parental investment.
The fighting over reputation (rather than over a particular man) found in Campbell’s and Marsh and Paton’s young adolescent girls may stem from age effects on their economic circumstances and their expectations of male investment. They are presumably living at home and are perhaps less in need of resources than they will be later. They may also be more optimistic about securing the investment of a high-status mate. Schuster describes the Zambian women she studied as being optimistic and “starry-eyed” when young, expecting “to find a handsome, wealthy, educated man and marry, then to go on to life in a big house, with the ideal four children…” After a series of disappointing encounters, however, they typically become tough, get themselves a number of boyfriends, and become manipulative toward men.In the words of one jaded Zambian woman, “Why put all your eggs in one basket, especially since nearly all of them are rotten anyway?”A concern with a good sexual reputation may have mattered when they were young, but the women have other problems facing them now. Optimism about finding a desirable mate has also been described for young women in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for whom “youth is a temporary asset that they utilize to the fullest extent. [Among those who] have been befriended by more successful men…a particular combination of entrepreneurship and delusion often prevails.”
A period of mating optimism among young adult women may be a regular feature of female psychology. A woman’s reproductive value—hence her chances of marrying upward in the social scale—is at its height when she is young. These odds may favor the type of sexual restraint and concern with sexual reputation that would make finding such a mate more likely. As a woman ages, particularly if she experiences disappointments that suggest she is unlikely to get what she wants, a shift in mating tactics may be expected. Schuster’s informants, in other words, may be behaving quite rationally; it would be interesting to know if their experience is widely shared. There is a hint of this shift in Marsh and Paton’s teenage girls. They report that the younger ones were ambivalent about their aggressiveness because they were aware that it is not regarded as feminine, whereas the older teens were uninhibited about their aggressiveness and unconcerned about appearing unfeminine.