FEMINIST ANTHROPOLOGY by James H Boschma III & Marsha Franks

Basic Premises

The subfield of Feminist Anthropology emerged in the early 1970s as a reaction to a perceived androcentric bias within the discipline (Lamphere 1996: 488). Two related points should be made concerning this reaction. First of all, some of the prominent figures in early American anthropology (i.e. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict) were women, and the discipline has traditionally been more egalitarian, in terms of gender, than other social sciences (di Leonardo 1991: 5-6). Underlying that statement, however, is the fact that the discipline has been subject to prevailing modes of thought through time and has certainly exhibited the androcentric thinking which early feminist anthropologists accused it of (Reiter 1975: 13-14). 

The first feminist anthropologists perceived substantial gaps in the corpus of anthropological literature as a result of male bias (Lamphere 1996: 488). What ethnographic data concerning women that existed was often, in reality, the reports of male informants transmitted through male ethnographers (Pine 1996: 253).

Contemporary feminist anthropologists are no longer focusing their research solely on the issue of gender asymmetry. Instead they have begun to explore the importance of female activities, such as "foraging, parenting, and sexual selection in our reconstructions of human history"(McGee and Warms 1996:391). The focus has shifted towards more particularistic and historically grounded studies that place gender at the center of analysis. Issues significant to women of color, lesbians, and Third World peoples are now recognized and incorporated into the scholarship produced by feminist anthropologists (Lamphere 1996:488). This collection of work has tended to follow a few main trends. The first trend developed along a materialistic perspective. Several of the scholars who follow this perspective focus on gender as it relates to class, the social relations of power, and changes in modes of production. The second of these trends focuses on "the social construction of gender as it is expressed in the roles of motherhood, kinship, and marriage" (McGee and Warms 1996:392). 

In general, contemporary feminist anthropologists have shown that gender is an important analytical concept (McGee and Warms 1996:392). Gender is a term that came into popular use in the early 1980's. It was often found in the writings of social and cultural anthropologists. Gender was used to refer to both the male and the female, the cultural construction of these categories, and the relationship between them (Pine 1996:253). The definition of gender may vary from culture to culture, and this realization has led feminist anthropologists away from broad generalizations (Lamphere 1996:488). The focus of contemporary scholars in this area is on the differences existing among women rather than between males and females (McGee, Warms 1996: 392). 

Points of Reaction

Anthropology is one of the few disciplines in which women historically have been able to obtain both high levels of professional achievement and public recognition. In the anthropological literature, however, the discussion of women, until recently, has been restricted to the areas of marriage, kinship, and family. Feminist anthropologists believe that the failure of past researchers to treat the issues of women and gender as significant has led to a deficient understanding of the human experience (McGee and Warms 1996:391, from Morgen 1989:1).

One criticism made by feminist anthropologists is directed towards the language being used within the discipline. The ambiguous use of the word "man" is ambiguous, sometimes referring to Homo sapiens as a whole, sometimes in reference to males only, and sometimes in reference to both simultaneously. Those making this criticism cited the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which stated that language shapes worldview. Theorists such as S. Washburn and C. Lancaster were also criticized. In addition to using phrases such as 'poor dependent females', these theorists placed a great deal of weight on aggression. Working in the 1960's, K. Lorenz published On Aggression and R. Ardrey published African Genesis. Both were popular texts that promoted the importance of aggression in the evolutionary formation of humanity (McGee and Warms 1996:395). 

A further point of reaction happened after the initial creation of the subfield. African-American anthropologists and members of other ethnic minorities were quick to point out deficiencies in the questions being asked by the early feminist anthropologists. One of those to do so was Audrey Lorde, who in a letter to Mary Daly wrote: "I feel you do celebrate differences between white women as a creative force towards change, rather than a reason for misunderstanding and separation. But you fail to recognize that, as women, those differences expose all women to various forms and degrees of patriarchal oppression, some of which we share, some of which we do not....The oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those boundaries" (Minh-ha 1989:101). Early feminist anthropologists did indeed imply, in their search for universal explanations for female subordination and gender inequality, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women. The later work done in this subfield has addressed this criticism.

Leading Figures

Margaret Mead's (1901-1978) theories were influenced by ideas borrowed from Gestalt psychology, that subfield of psychology which analyzed personality as an interrelated psychological pattern rather than a collection of separate elements (McGee, Warms 1996:202) Her work influenced Rosaldo's and Lamphere's attempts to build a framework for the emerging discipline. Mead's work contained an analysis of pervasive sexual asymmetry that fit with their reading of the ethnographic literature (Levinson, Ember 1996:488). 

Sherry Ortner (1941- ), one of the early proponents of feminist anthropology, constructed a explanatory model for gender asymmetry based on the premise that the subordination of women is a universal, that is, cross-cultural phenomenon. In an article published in 1974, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?, she takes a structuralist approach to the question of gender inequality. She suggests that a woman's role as childbearer makes them natural creators, while men use are cultural creators (Ortner 1974: 77-78)). 

Michelle Rosaldo, together with Ortner, offered an integrated set of explanations, each at a different level, for the universal subordination of women. These were in terms of social structure, culture, and socialization. She argued that in every society women bear and raise children and that women's socially and culturally defined role as mother provided the basis for subordination. Early feminist anthropologists such as Rosaldo did not question the concept of the universal subordination of women and used dichotomies to explain it (Lamphere 1996:488-9).

 Ruth Benedict (1887-1948): Benedict, a student of Franz Boas, was an early and influential female anthropologist, earning her doctorate from Columbia University in 1923 (Buckner 1997: 34). Her fieldwork with Native Americans and other groups led her to develop the "configurational approach" to culture, seeing cultural systems as working to favor certain personality types among different societies (Buckner 1997: 34). Along with Margaret Mead she is one of the most prominent female anthropologists of the first half of this century.

Key Works

Margaret Mead (1935) Sex and Temperment in Three Primitive Societies. New York: William Morrow. In this text Mead explores the relationship between culture and human nature. Culture is dealt with as a primary factor in determining masculine and feminine social characteristics and behavior. One of the purposes of this text was to inform Americans as to the nature of human cultural diversity (McGee and Warms 1996:202-3). 

Margaret Mead (1949) Male and Female: A study of the sexes in a changing world. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks. By her own declaration, Mead attempts to do three things in this text. First, to bring a greater awareness of the way in which the differences and similarities in the bodies of human beings are the basis on which all our learning about our sex, and our relationship to the other sex, are built. Secondly, she draws on some of the knowledge we have of all human societies, to see what has been attempted in what situations, and what the results were. This is done in the hope that we might learn or be exposed to an idea that will leave us the better for it. Finally, she tries to suggest ways in which our civilization may make full use of both a man's and a woman's special talents (Mead 1949:5-6). Her analyses concerning the differences between males and females influenced many of the discussions that were to follow. 

Engels, Frederick (1973) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Moscow: Progress Publishers. The theories developed by both Engels and Marx influenced many of the first feminist anthropologists. The quest for a universal understanding of female subordination, as well as the reliance upon dichotomies both had their roots in the ideas of these two men, and in the theories posited in this text. 

Rosaldo, Michelle and Louise Lamphere, eds. (1974) Women, Culture, and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press. This collection of essays emerged from a course at Stanford University, as well as from papers delivered at the 1971 American Anthropological Association meetings. These essays deal with the issue of universal sexual asymmetry, or female subordination.

Reiter, Rayna, ed. (1975) Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press. This anthology is considered one of the groundbreaking collections of feminist essays published in the 1970's, and includes works by authors such as Sally Slocum. The ideas expressed in this collection are heavily focused towards the development of universal explanations and helpful dichotomies. 

Principal Concepts

Initially, feminist anthropology focused on analysis and development of theory to explain the subordination of women, which seemed to be universal and cross-cultural. Marxist theory was appealing to feminist anthropologists in the 1970s because "there is no theory which accounts for the oppression of women – in its endless variety and monotonous similarity, cross-culturally and throughout history – with anything like the explanatory power of the Marxist theory of class oppression" (Rubin 1975: 160). The Marxist model explains that the subordination of women in capitalist societies, both in terms of their reproductive role, "the reproduction of labor," as well as their value as unpaid or underpaid labor, arises from historical trends predating capitalism itself (Rubin 1975: 160-164). 

Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, attempted to explain the origin of these historical trends, though his 19th century theories seem dated to present day readers (Rubin 1975: 164-5). He attributed the oppression of women to shifts in the modes of production at the time of the Neolithic revolution (Rubin 1975: 169). According to Engels, once men had property (land or herds), they desired to transmit them to their offspring via patrilineal inheritance. This was accomplished by the overthrow of matrilineal inheritance and descent systems, leading to the "world historical defeat of the female sex" (Engels 1972: 120-121). 

Accepting the idea that women were universally subordinated to men in some manner, anthropologists in the feminist subfield developed different models to explain this situation. Anthropologists such as Rosaldo, Edholm, and Ortner used dichotomies such as public/domestic, production/reproduction, and nature/culture (respectively) to explain universal female subordination. Ortner's use of the dichotomy to explain the universal subordination of women is built upon Levi-Strauss's conclusion that there is a universal binary opposition between nature and culture. He also argued that cross-culturally women were represented as closer to nature because of their role in reproduction (Pine 1996:254). 

E. Friedl and L. Lamphere believe that, although females are subjected to universal subordination, they are not without individual power. These two anthropologists emphasize the domestic power of women. This power, according to this theoretical framework, is "manifested in individually negotiated relations based in the domestic sphere but influencing and even determining male activity in the public sphere" (Pine 1996:254).

In the late 1970's many feminist anthropologists were beginning to question the concept of universal female subordination and the usefulness of models based on dichotomies. Some anthropologists argued that there existed societies where males and females held roles that were complementary but equal. The work done by A. Schlegal and J. Briggs in foraging and tribal societies is an example of this. K. Sacks used a modes-of-production analysis to show that "hunter-gatherers possessed a communal political economy in which sisters, wives, brothers, and husbands all had the same relation to productive means and resources". Another criticism made against the use of dichotomies was that these dichotomies were Western categories. They, therefore, are not applicable to cross-cultural studies and analyses (Lamphere 1996:489).

The use and development of the concept 'gender ' has helped to further separate feminist anthropology from the use of dichotomies and the search for universals. Gender, as it came to replace the term woman in the anthropological discussions, helped to free the issue of inequality from biological connotations. These new discussions of gender brought with them more complex issues of cross-cultural translation, universality, the relationship between thought systems and individual action, and between ideology and material conditions (Pine 1996: 255). I. Illich defines sex as the "duality that stretches toward the illusory goal of economic, political, legal, or social equality between women and men". He defines gender as the "eminently local and time bound duality that sets off men and women under circumstances and conditions that prevent them from saying, doing, desiring, or perceiving 'the same thing'" (Minh-ha 1989:105). 


The unifying aspect of feminist anthropology is that it focuses on the role, status, and contributions of women to their societies. Within this framework, individual anthropologists explore a wide range of interests and employ a wide range of theoretical models to interpret data. It would, consequently, be problematic to characterize any one approach or model as predominant within the field at present.

That observation aside, however, one should note that the field was more unified during its early development in the 1970s, when the interest was on developing models to explain the universal subordination of women. The preferred theoretical framework to analyze this state of affairs was Marxist. This preference stemmed both from the utility of the Marxist model for the analysis of gender asymmetry, as well as the early foundational writings of Marx and Engels concerning the status of women in capitalist economic systems. 

Within the Marxist framework, the oppression of women is carried out by men in support of the capitalist system (Rubin 1975: 164-5). They maintain that the oppression of women supports capitalism on two levels: first of all, women serve as the mean of reproducing the labor force. Additionally, however, women's unpaid or underpaid labor serves to help defray and conceal the overall cost of operating a capitalist economy, thereby elevating profit margins for the bourgeoisie (Rubin 1975: 164-5)

Initial explanatory models to account for female oppression also took a structuralist approach. Within these models, the roles of men and women were seen as being culturally constructed. The reproductive functions of women and men historically led to the association of women with lower-status, but relatively safer, activities within the domestic sphere, the village, or other setting. At the same time, men’s role in reproduction allowed them (or forced them) to operate outside of "safe" spatial areas. These dichotomous orientations managed to outlive the environmental pressures which originally prompted their adoption.

Both the Marxist model and the structuralist model reject the notion that the oppression of women is associated with something innate and biological about the human species. Sexual dimorphism in humans is a biological feature of the species but serves only to facilitate the possible oppression of women, not to mandate it or program such behavior into humans (Leibowitz 1975: 20-1). Mead's ethnographic research examined cultures where male and female behavior was inconsistent with the western conception of rational males and emotional females, for instance (Leibowitz 1975: 20-1). Likewise, primate studies demonstrate widely varying forms of interaction between male and female apes (Leibowitz 1975: 25-31). 


The most obvious contribution of feminist anthropology has been the increased awareness of women within anthropology, both in terms of ethnographic accounts and theory. This emphasis has challenged a number of enshrined beliefs, for instance concerning models of human origins wherein the "man the hunter" model was seen as being the driving force in human evolution, ignoring the role that women’s productive and reproductive roles in the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens (Conkey and Williams 1991: 116-7)

Feminist anthropology has been intimately tied to the study of gender and its construction by various societies, an interest that examines both women and men (di Leonardo 1991: 1).


Feminist anthropology has been criticized for a number of issues since its emergence in the 1970s. One early criticism, noted above, was made by female anthropologists belonging to ethnic minorities. Their criticism was that white, middle class female anthropologists were focusing too intensely on issues of gender. Consequently, the subfield was ignoring social inequalities arising from issues such as racism and the unequal distribution of wealth. This criticism has been redressed both by a heightened awareness of such issues by the aforementioned white, middle class feminist anthropologists, as well as the entry of large numbers of minority anthropologists into the field.

Additionally, feminist anthropology has been accused of mirroring the situation they originally criticized. The field began as a critique of the androcentric bias deriving from men (male ethnographers) studying men (male informants). However, it has often been the case that feminist anthropology consists of women studying women in the same arrangement. The field has attempted to address this issue by focusing more broadly on the issue of gender and moving away from the "Anthropology of Women" (di Leonardo 1991: 1).

Finally, the field has always been intimately associated with the Feminist Movement and has often been politicized. This practice is problematic on a number of levels. For one, it alienates many from the field by projecting an aura of radicalism. For another, putting politics before attempts at impartial inquiry tends to lead to research of questionable merit.

Sources and Bibliography 
Bohannan, P and M Glazer, eds. (1988) High Points in Anthropology. McGraw-Hill, Inc.:New York.
Conkey, Margaret W and Sarah H Williams (1991) Original Narratives: The political economy of gender in archaeology. In Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era, Micaela di Leonardo, ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp 102-139.
Di Leonardo, Micaeila (1991) Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era (Introduction). Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp 1-48
Engels, Frederick. 1972. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Eleanor Leacock, ed. New York: International Publishers.
Hurst, C.E. (1995) Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences. London: Allyn and Bacon.
Lamphere, L (1996) Gender. In Levinson, D. and M. Ember, eds.Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 2. New York: Henry Holt and Co, pp. 488-493.
Leibowitz L (1975) Perspectives on the Evolution of Sex Differences. In Toward an Anthropology of Women, Rayna R. Reiter, ed., pp. 21-35. New York: Monthly Review Press.
McGee, RJ and RL Warms (1996) Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. London: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Mead, M. (1949) Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.
Minh-ha, Trinh T. (1989) Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Morgen, Sandra (1989) Gender and Anthropology: Introductory Essay. In Gender and Anthropology--Critical Reviews for Research and Teaching, Sandra Morgen, ed., pp. 1-20. Washington D.C.:American Anthropological Association.
Pine, F (1996) Gender. In Barnard, A and J Spencer, eds. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York: Routledge, 253-262.
Reiter, Rayna R. (1975) Toward an Anthropology of Women (Introduction). New York: Monthly Review Press.
Rubin, Gail (1975) The Traffic in Women: Notes on the "Political Economy" of Sex. In Toward an Anthropology of Women. Rayna R. Reiter, ed. New York. Monthly Review Press, pp 157-210.

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