Feminist Anthropology

By Emma Louise Backe

Compared with other scientific disciplines, anthropology is relatively young—it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the fundamental principles of ethnographic fieldwork and theory were conceived and taken up by practitioners. Early anthropology was essentially the study of human difference, although the analysis of cultural variation was often co-opted by colonial regimes hoping to justify the discrimination and dispossession of “primitive” or traditional cultures. As anthropologists distanced themselves from the biological determinism of 19th century ideologies, they adapted more nuanced, contextualized, and reflexive approaches to studying foreign and subaltern communities. Even though Franz Boas is often heralded as the father of 20th century modern anthropology, his female pupils are equally responsible for building the foundations of contemporary sociocultural anthropology and ethnographic fieldwork. During his tenure at Columbia University, Boas trained Ruth Benedict , Zora Neale Hurston , Margaret Mead, anthropologists who would go on to reshape the intellectual landscape of the discipline and popular understandings of culture and sexuality in the 20th century.

While Zora Neale Hurston is better known for her literary works, she was also the first black woman to graduate from Barnard with a degree in anthropology. Her autoethnographic collection of African American folklore, Mules and Men (1935), and analysis of the spiritual traditions of voudon in Haiti and Jamaica produced in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938) were essential contributions to the burgeoning field in the early 1900s. Hurston worked with Ruth Benedict when the two were students at Columbia. While the two were both fascinated by the intersections between anthropology and folklore, Benedict is best known for Patterns of Culture (1934), which built upon and embellished Boas’s theory of cultural relativism. Benedict argues that the values, traditions, and beliefs of a given community are contingent upon the social context and culture in which patterns are produced, reproduced, and circulated.

Benedict’s research was guided by the central principle that anthropology’s purpose is to make the world safe for human difference. Yet the kinds of difference that constituted valuable subjects for ethnographic research often elevated the voices and experiences of men. Despite the numerous contributions of female anthropologists, the discipline has largely been dominated by male practitioners and an androcentric orientation to the study of culture. Although anthropology was premised on complicating Western assumptions about the world, and highlighted that the basic categories of social life and culture are subject to a number of creative, multifarious constructions and iterations, ethnographic accounts throughout the early 20th century largely took for granted the fact that interlocutors were male. Perhaps because so many anthropologists were men themselves, access to ethnographic field sites largely occurred through male community members who would then serve as the experts of their social milieu. It was naively assumed that the male cultural perspective was equally representative of the female one. This oversight also stemmed from a surprising unwillingness to ask about matters of sexuality or investigate the gendered dimensions of power and prestige in traditional communities.

To address this gap, Margaret Mead took on the groundbreaking task of pushing anthropologists to critically consider gender and sexuality through her fieldwork in the South Pacific. Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) were the first of many ethnographic interventions Mead made that precipitated a paradigm shift in Western understandings of sexuality, sexual fluidity, and male and female sexual roles.  Mead’s work in the South Pacific, which demonstrated that traditional, nuclear sexual relationships between men and women were neither “natural” nor culturally universal, is often praised as helping to precipitate the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, contemporaneous with the second wave feminist movement, that feminist anthropology truly emerged. In her Feminist Anthropology anthology, Ellen Lewin argues that the movement was premised on improving and strengthening women’s presence in ethnographic writing. Feminist anthropologists called into question the supremacy of male interlocutors and worked to elevate the voices of female informants. Informed by the feminist impulse of the 1970s when the paradigm of “women in development” still reigned, gender studies was often conflated with the study of women by women. Feminist anthropologists also strived to work across the disciplines to answer enduring questions about the category of gender. Lewin addressed these questions “Our non-anthropologist political allies—our ‘sisters’—had charged us with the weighty task of situating women’s oppression cross-culturally. Had women always been oppressed? Were there factors—economic, cultural, historical—that could be shown to influence women’s status? How could we go about assessing the status of women cross-culturally.”

Feminist anthropology was also applied to the archaeological record to problematize prevailing “man as hunter, woman as gatherer” tropes and reconsider the historical dimensions of our evolution as a species. The desire to understand the role of women across time and between cultures emerged in part from the question of whether women had always been suppressed and subjugated. Anthropologists were especially careful to disentangle the conflation of sex and gender. The importance of cultural contingency and self-reflexivity that informs feminist anthropology also led to a deeper reworking of the presumed relationship between gender and biology. It became clear that what it meant to be a woman, the social construction and performance of femaleness, and the sexual roles adopted by women depend upon historical and cultural context, rather than intrinsic, universal traits of gender.

By the 1980s and 90s, however, feminist anthropologists began to move away from studying women as a unitary category and instead considered and complicated the material, political, economic, and medical conditions within which gender is articulated and mobilized. As Lewin recounts, “Thus the field moved from being concerned with documenting the experience of particular populations—namely women—to interpreting the place of gender in broader patterns of meaning, interaction, and power, not only among those people who are the objects of investigation, but among anthropologists themselves.” During this time period, the ethnographic gaze not only gravitated toward increasingly nuanced subjects of gendered analysis, but also turned inward upon the discipline itself. While some feminist anthropologists began to play with alternative writing styles, like more personalized and poetic autoethnography, others criticized anthropology’s failure to internalize feminism’s theoretical provocations and possibilities. In “An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology” (1987), Marilyn Strathern lamented the fact that rather than precipitate a radical transformation of the discipline, feminist anthropology was taken up as a niche sub-field, one that was accommodated by other practitioners rather than applied to the discipline as a whole.

More contemporary works of feminist anthropology grapple with the configurations of gender, sexuality, and politics in conservative religious contexts (Abu-Lughod 1986, Mahmood 2005); the medicalization of women’s bodies and reproductive health (Ginsberg 1998, Martin 1987, Rapp 2000); and have taken on topics like female genital mutilation (Gruenbaum 2001) and gender-based violence (Das 2007, Merry 2008, Wies and Haldane 2011) which push against some of anthropology’s culturally relative ethical quandaries. Donna Haraway’s Cyborg looms large as a metaphor for both 21st century feminist anthropology and alternative configurations of what it means to be a woman.

The Association for Feminist Anthropology was founded in 1988, and anthropologists across the four sub-disciplines—sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and archaeology—continue to experiment with ethnographic writing, critique persistent theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of gender, and commit to politically engaged research that assists communities and invests in the struggles of the sub-altern. The scope and breadth of feminist anthropology has increased significantly from the early 1970s during the movement’s inception, yet the identity of the feminist anthropologist remains in flux. While gender and sexuality remain crucial themes in feminist scholarship, what it means to be a feminist anthropologist and engage in feminist ethnography remain unsettled.

Further Reading

Behar, Ruth and Deborah A. Gordon, eds. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

di Leonardo, Micaela, ed. Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Shostak, Marjorie. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Emma is a Master’s student at George Washington University, where she studies
Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy. In addition to her fieldwork on
gender-based violence and survivors’ healing narratives, Emma also works as a gender
consultant on women’s rights issues, including violence, sexual and reproductive health, and
trauma. In her spare time, Emma manages and writes for 
The Geek Anthropologist, runs a
feminist podcast called 
Witching Hour, and serves as an advocate for survivors of sexual