Like many young women, I grew up aspiring to fit into a patriarchal world. While the boys in my elementary school were encouraged to focus on their professional achievement and financial success, I was instructed to cross my legs, minimize my food intake, and coo at plastic babies with fluttering eyelids.
Every cultural signal I encountered featured men at the top of the food chain, giving me the morning news, leading Fortune 500 companies, accepting Nobel Prizes. It was only years later, while studying biology, that I found empowerment in an unexpected place: through the tale of the spotted hyena’s evolution — possibly one of the most inspirational examples of feminism in the natural world.
In the queendom of the spotted hyena, it’s ladies first
Unlike most other mammals, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) live in matriarchal societies led by alpha females. In these clans throughout sub-Saharan Africa, females do the majority of the hunting, dictate the social structure, and raise cubs as single mothers. Even the highest-ranking male in the group is subservient to the most junior female. Accordingly, male spotted hyenas have evolved to be comparatively diminutive, weighing about 12 percent less than females — a feature uncommon even among matrilines.
Cubs of this species are born into a competitive world, immediately tussling for dominance. Siblicide is common, and sisters typically beat out brothers. If they are lucky enough to blossom into adolescence, male hyenas must leave their childhood clan. They wander the savannah alone until they assimilate into a new group by seeking the favor of its queen.
Their sisters, on the other hand, remain behind, inheriting their mothers’ ranks in the complex social ladder. Much like the Greek Amazons and Wonder Woman, hyenas are a lineage of queens that prove the human assumption that patriarchies are inevitable — or even natural — completely wrong.
What’s more, their vilification in films like The Lion King as cackling, conniving scavengers is off base. Spotted hyenas are fiercely loyal to their packs, cooperating in everything from child care to distributing shares of food. They hunt at least 50 percent of their meals and have no tolerance for waste, consuming even the hooves, bones, and teeth of prey (take that, nose-to-tail restaurants).
These powerful creatures are also keen and socially perceptive: Unlike most other animals, any given hyena in a clan knows each of the other members of her society on an individual level. Females will band together to bring down prey, and quarreling friends will reconcile after fights.
Researchers believe hyenas’ intelligence and social sophistication may even be comparable to that of primates: Hyena packs more closely resemble groups of monkeys than those of other predators, and hyenas are the only known non-primate species to pass status from mother to daughter.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that other mammals that feature stable matrilineal communities — including lemurs and orcas — also exhibit great intelligence. In the spotted hyena population, matriarchy, as opposed to patriarchy, appears to have the advantage of maintaining genetic diversity: As the lower-ranking sex, individual males are less likely to father a disproportionate number of cubs in one clan. Dominant females, which can only birth so many cubs at a time and often take multiple partners, do not run this risk.
In this way, female empowerment has served the spotted hyena well: Despite not being the largest animals roaming the savannah, it is arguably the most successful, outnumbering all other carnivores on the continent of Africa.
But there’s one aspect of the spotted hyena matriarchy that appears alarmingly misogynistic at first glance. Look between a lady hyena’s back legs (with her permission, of course), and you’ll find a thick, phallic structure complete with a false scrotum and testes. This is the pseudopenis, a structure so convincing that, for years, researchers wondered if spotted hyenas were hermaphrodites.
While there are several other species, including elephants, where females have pseudophalluses, those of spotted hyenas are a true feat in mimicry, nearly indistinguishable from the male penis in both length and girth. “It’s not just a slight masculinization,” says biologist Carin Bondar. “We’re seeing the entire reproductive system being dominated.”
The internal plumbing remains the same, however, which means that females must urinate through the pseudopenis. They must have sex through the pseudopenis. They must even give birth through the pseudopenis. And though it remains flaccid during these acts, the latter two ordeals are just as complicated and painful as they sound.
We could stand to take a leaf or two out of the hyena playbook
I’ve been thinking a lot about the spotted hyena this year — and not just because of the mind-boggling fact that these ladies push multiple 3-pound cubs through a fake penis and live to tell the tale. In many ways, their complexities echo so many human notions about the roles women can and cannot occupy. The idea of a woman at the helm remains a hard pill to swallow in our own society.
This past January, hundreds of thousands across the world marched for the second year in a row to protest the constraints on women in all walks of life. Fifty-five years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, women still make only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — a gap that widens into a chasm for women of color. And in the prolonged wake of the #MeToo movement, stories of sexual misconduct by powerful CEOs, Hollywood stars, and White House staff continue to appear in the news week after week.
The scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and countless others have empowered women everywhere to speak out. But every woman who has come forward to share her story also reminds us that ignorance and female marginalization are still the norm rather than the exception.
Hyenas run a successful matriarchal society, but are they illustrating a fundamental contradiction to feminism by adopting the guise of males? When two females face off, the one losing the battle will actually get an erection to signify her submission. And in some instances, hyenas may even take things a step too far: Males are expected to be not just respectful of females but absolutely deferential.
Halfway between our patriarchy and the hyena matriarchy might lie a compromise
I’m not suggesting we try to emulate hyena societies. We’re striving for gender equality, not a reversal of traditional subjugation.
But we should not have to succumb to the binary of patriarchal or matriarchal. There is a middle ground, and it’s completely achievable. To someday reach that compromise, our male-dominated society needs to study female empowerment.
We can start by acknowledging that patriarchy isn’t a necessary natural order. Powerful females abound in nature and govern complex societies of intelligent individuals. A culture led by women is not doomed or damned.
In spotted hyena clans, male stalking, harassment, and aggression toward females are taboo. These tactics simply don’t work. If a guy wants to woo a girl, he waits patiently and earns her respect through deference and altruism — because he knows he is not entitled to her affection or anatomy simply by virtue of being male. When it comes to hyena sex, it’s the considerate guys who get the ladies. Human males, take note.
Even the pseudopenis, torturous as it is, has a few tricks up its shaft. Rather than being a form of flattery, the mimicry of the female pseudopenis may actually be a way to outcompete the male penis.
“When males have penis power, they have the ability to hold that over females,” says Bondar. Such is not the case with spotted hyenas. Their false penile structures are actually protective during sex, during which a male penis must be inserted into (yes, you read that right) the female pseudopenis. The majority of the time, the female’s reproductive tract is blocked by the phony scrotum, such that for sex to occur, a female must hold still and patiently retract her pseudopenis to reveal her vagina. In other words, sex doesn’t happen without the female’s full consent and cooperation. The pseudopenis is a built-in anti-rape defense.
Even after copulation, if the female decides the male wasn’t actually worth her time, she can take advantage of the fact that the long urethra and vaginal tract converge … and simply urinate to flush out undeserving semen. As male-looking as the pseudopenis is, it’s one of the most strategic tools in the female arsenal.
Female hyenas are aggressive, accomplished leaders who never have to second-guess their own strength. Mothers remain the primary caregivers for cubs, who are promptly abandoned by their fathers after birth.
And the pseudopenis itself? It’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s actually a clitoris, just a very big one.
Which means female hyenas haven’t manipulated their way to the top by assuming the traits of another sex. Rather, they’re showcasing an exaggerated version of their most uniquely female anatomy.
Hyenas with the most influence aren’t masquerading as males. They’re exerting their femininity. And it’s powerful as hell.
Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard University and co-director emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS mass media fellow at Smithsonian magazine.