Mammalian societies in which females dominate males are rare, and the factors favouring the evolution of female dominance have yet to be clearly identified. We propose a new hypothesis for the evolution of female dominance and test its predictions with empirical data from the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), a well-studied species characterized by female dominance. We suggest that constraints imposed by the development of a feeding apparatus specialized for bone cracking, in combination with the intensive feeding competition characteristic of spotted hyenas, led to the evolution of female dominance. Specifically, we propose that protracted development of the feeding apparatus in young hyenas led to selection for increased aggressiveness in females as a compensatory mechanism for mothers to secure food access for their young after weaning. Our analyses yielded results consistent with this hypothesis. Morphological and behavioural measurements indicate that skull development is indeed protracted in this species; spotted hyenas do not achieve adult skull size or feeding performance capabilities until after sexual maturity. The period between weaning and completed skull development is particularly challenging, as indicated by high mortality. Finally, maternal presence between weaning and full skull maturity, as well as the relative ability of females to aggressively displace conspecifics from food, are important determinants of offspring survival.