The Importance of Feminism in Anthropology

The Importance of Feminism in Anthropology
Britteny Marie Howell

Feminism has had a profound effect on anthropology as a discipline and on anthropological theory. This effect is evident in the changes made obvious since the advent of feminist work. Feminism began to take shape in the 1970s, where it began its long and arduous history. Many people cringe at the sound of the word feminism because it brings to mind images of women burning bras and “femi-Nazis” loudly protesting for equality. In the beginning, women knew they had to “expose sexism in public and private life, to alter the male-biased presumptions of scholarly and popular culture” (di Leonardo 1991: 2). This was quite a task to take on and so feminists are often viewed as having gone a bit too far.

The history of feminist work was brought on by the civil rights movements, anti-war sentiments, environmental and foreign policy concerns and gay and minority rights movements of the 1970s. American anthropology has always been about looking at ourselves by looking at others, this idea was not brought on by feminists. However, in the late Victorian era of Marx and Freud, evolutionary debates led to the belief that man had always dominated women. In 1965 the Brit Radcliffe-Brown postulated structural-functionalism as a theoretical framework. The American relocation and killing of the Native Americans prevented this framework from applying there. The Americans collected any information on their culture that they could get, thus emphasizing culture not society. American psychology was well established and American anthropologists were inclined “toward the psychological arena” and became the “culture and personality” theoretical learnings of the two most famous female anthropologists of the early twentieth century (di Leonardo 1991: 5). However influential these women were, they were still discriminated against. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were students of Franz Boas and quite well known. Mead was famous for her writings of cross-cultural malleability of “natural” sex roles, but had never held an official department position and Benedict lost the chair position to a man when Boas retired.

In the 1970s anthropologists began looking at men’s and women’s different experiences as topics on their own terms. Before the 1970s, most theoretical movements ignored gender differences. However, prefeminist ethnographers gave rich information on gender. They would often take their wives on fieldwork expeditions and the women would write the women’s point of view, which was either written into her husband’s account or written independently (di Leonardo 1991: 6). Feminists began re-writing ethnographies, such as Malinowski’s Trobriand Islands, to consider women’s lives but in the process were also rewriting theory. Micaela di Leonardo states that Collier’s and Lamphere’s work on the dynamics of kinship and politics is a partial improvement on Radcliffe-Brown. Yanagisako also looked at symbolism in kinship which is a feminist twist on the cultural approach to kinship by David Shneider (di Leonardo 1991: 9).

Marilyn Strathern (1988) states that feminist scholarship organizes knowledge differently than most social sciences and challenges the way in which anthropology organizes knowledge (Strathern 1988: 23). She had previously stated that anthropology is a tolerant discipline that has many specializations and frameworks. Marxism, structuralism and symbolic anthropology all exist and this tolerance allowed for feminist ideas and the study of gender (Strathern 1987: 280). However, the tendency of anthropology to reduce feminism to one among many theories is countered by the idea that feminist activists might reduce anthropological knowledge of other cultures to little more than documentation of the different conditions in which women live. I believe feminism fits into anthropology well because all previous thought was from the point of view of men, thus only half the story was usually analyzed. Generalizations were made such as the Trobrianders do this... and the Trobrianders believe this... without the whole picture of what the women do and believe. The politics of feminism can be applied to anthropology, but theory and practice are causes of tension in the discipline. Feminist anthropology is not just about adding women to the picture, but instead about confronting the conceptual and analytical faults of disciplinary theory (Moore 1988: 4).

There are two types of feminism- radical feminism that attempts to change the basis of society and the assimilated feminism in academia, that views women in society and studies their point of view. Barrett states in Strathern (1988) that the ideas of radical feminism are mostly incompatible with, if not hostile to, those of Marxism and that one of its political projects has been to show how women have been betrayed by socialists and socialism (Strathern 1988: 25). Barrett believes that Marxist thought deals with class relations, labor processes and the state without regard to women’s oppression.  

In contrast, Micaela di Leonardo mentions the many British feminists who were influenced strongly by Marxist theory without using Marx or Engels for evolutionist grand theorizing. She states that these feminists looked at the lives of women in particular societies in terms of historical and political-economic contexts. Some of these women include Patricia Caplan, Janet Bujra and Kate Young of whom the latter contributed to Of Marriage and the Market (1981). This work shares the Marxist framework of other social scientists and historians in attempting to describe women’s roles in the evolving global economy (di Leonardo 1991: 14). Di Leonardo then agrees with Strathern and goes on to say that Western feminist thought has moved away from the economic-historical considerations toward psychology. The two major factors limiting evolutionist Marxist explanations are the fact that it uses the Victorian anthropological comparative method, to consider contemporary cultures as living in history. The second factor is that the ethnographic record shows too many counterexamples to the Marx and Engels model of sexually egalitarian small-scale societies. Illustrating this point is the fact that too many women in small-scale societies experienced exploitation and oppression because of men within their societies to argue that Western contact is responsible for the unequal gender relations in foraging and horticultural societies (di Leonardo 1991: 15).  

Donna Haraway mentions both the good and the bad of feminist Marxism. She says that Marxism does not deal with the issues of women properly. Humanistic Marxism has always been polluted by the structuring theory of domination of nature in the “self-construction of man” and how it historicized anything women did that did not earn a wage (Haraway 1988: 578). She also concedes that Marxism was still a good resource as an epistemological feminist thought that sought feminist doctrines of objective vision. The starting points of Marxism were useful for feminists to get to their own versions of theories without disempowering posivitisms and relativisms. Marxism also converges with another approach, “feminist empiricism”, to get a theory of science that emphasizes legitimate meanings of objectivity. This approach is not a radical constructivism riddled with semiology and narratology (Haraway 1988: 579).

Fredrich Engels’s book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) is a text that tries to link the history of the family to the development of private property. A feminist debate ensued because of his ideas and he stated that the growth of male-owned private property and the development of monogamous families changed women’s position in society and led to the ‘world-historical defeat of the female sex’. He stated that before this ‘defeat’ societies around the world were egalitarian (Moore 1988: 46). Engels sees both sexes as equals that can own property and take part in political and economic activities. His ideas are very influential in Marxist and feminist analyses of the subordination of women. Thus the connection that Engels makes between women’s subordination and private property means that he views women’s inferior status as directly related to the fact that they do not own the means of production.

Moore mentions Karen Sacks as a Marxist anthropologist who is interested in the idea of women’s universal subordination. She attempted to modify Engels’s idea that women were subordinate because of the development of private property. She states that there is ‘too much data showing that women are not the complete equals of men in most non-class societies lacking private property’ (Sacks in Moore 1988: 33). Despite this valid argument, she agrees with Engels’s position because it tells of the conditions under which women become subordinate to men and because it takes into account historical and ethnographic data that shows women did not always stand subordinate to men around the world. Sacks’s position allows for the examination of women’s varying positions in societies everywhere.

Another problem for feminist work is to explain why women’s work is always underestimated. Their contributions to household income and unwaged labor go largely unnoticed. One of the reasons for this is the definition of ‘work’. Every society can have a different definition of work and it is sometimes only referred to as having a job or a way to make money. Esther Boserup provided a comparative analysis of women’s work, based on data from many societies in the book Women’s Role in Economic Development (1970). She was able to show that it is not always men who provide the home with food, because in Africa the women do most of the cultivation. She contrasted African societies to those of Asia and explained the marked difference in women’s roles as due to population density, landholding systems and technology (Moore 1988: 44). Boserup also mentioned the negative effects of colonialism and capitalism on women. She explains the underestimation of women’s work as an ‘ideological bias underlying statistical categories [that] tends to undervalue women’s work, and that subsistence activities usually omitted in the statistics of production and income are largely women’s work’ (Boserup in Moore 1988: 44).

To discuss women’s work means to understand the structure of the household. Anthropology is also able to make clear the relationship between the family and household in social and historical contexts. Anthropological research has long made clear the cross-cultural differences in kinship systems and living arrangements. The definitions of ‘family’ and household’ are different in all societies and tend to go through stages. Despite the definitional problems, households are important in feminist studies because they organize a large part of women’s domestic and reproductive labor. The way the household is structured affects women’s lives, especially their access to labor and income. Ann Whitehead studied labor practices in a farming community in the Bawku district of north eastern Ghana (1981) and noted that women work for men, juniors work for seniors, the poor work for the rich and all these relationships form social relations through kinship, residence and patronage. Women are expected to work for the elder men of the household, but the men will only work for the women if they can exchange labor with them (Whitehead in Moore 1988: 58). This results in less acreage for women compared to that of men. She states that women have weaker claims to land in this agnatic society and thus profit less from their farms than do men.  

Most of today’s feminists are attempting to challenge the universal (or male) point of view- to change as well as understand different anthropological thought and theory. The problem with early feminists, and the reason people think of “femi-Nazis”, is because they had originally set out to change the paradigm. The best shifts in thought tend to occur without trying, and only get noticed later. Another problem with the shift to genders studies, is that women in different cultures do not always feel like women in Western cultures. Western women can be concerned with equality, but its not a universal sentiment of women everywhere. Australian aboriginal women are not interested in all of the men’s activities and have their own ceremonies and activities that cannot be touched by men. Differences and asymmetry in culture do not necessarily mean inequality and that the men dominate the women. Henrietta Moore (1988) states that even in more egalitarian societies (like the Australian aborigines) are usually not seen as such because researchers are not able to understand the equality because they view difference and asymmetry as inequality and hierarchy (Moore 1988: 2).

Feminist anthropology attempts to look at societies gender relations in terms of their cultural values and views. Lila Abu-Lughod’s (1987) study of Bedouin women shed light on a subject that would never have been touched if it were not for feminist work. She was able to show how the complex workings of social power can be traced by the resistance the women displayed. She describes her argument as having been ‘that we should learn to read in various local and everyday resistences the existence of a range of specific strategies and structures of power’ (Abu-Lughod 1987: 332). Men studying the culture would never have been able to get such information about the resistance of the Bedouin women. Marilyn Strathern (1988) states that women’s perspective is conceived in resistance to or in conflict with men’s views (Strathern 1988: 23) and this is precisely why gender studies are important in analyzing many cultures. Feminist analysis is instrumental to a more autonomous view of power relations.

Abu-Lughod also noted the fact that the Bedouin women relied entirely on men for money. There were no job opportunities for women, so they were dependent on their husbands for spending money which they used to reward their wives or withhold it as a punishment. Moore mentions Westernization and the effect of international capitalism as a reason for the changing views of women in many societies. She stated that development and wage labor made women more dependent on men by undermining traditional systems where women have had a certain amount of control over production and reproduction (Moore 1988: 33).

Another useful theory brought about by feminist work is one posed by Sherry Ortner whom began an important framework for studying the power of women through gender symbolism. She wrote an early article sorting through the problem of women’s universal subordination as sexual asymmetry of cultural ideologies and symbols. She decided that women everywhere must be associated with something that every culture devalues. She concluded that it was ‘ “nature” in the most generalized sense’ (Ortner 1974: 72). All cultures make the distinction between nature and human society in which culture attempts to transcend and control nature. Culture is superior to nature and Ortner says that women are associated with nature and men with culture thus, women should also be controlled and contained. This is a very important statement to make in feminist anthropology and she uses two general arguments to apply it to all cultures. First, women have reproduction functions and are closer to nature. Men seek cultural means of creation through technology while women are able to naturally reproduce through giving birth. Secondly, since women have reproducing abilities they are limited to certain social functions which are seen as closer to nature, or the domestic domain. Women need to rear children and are associated with the pre-social or not yet culturally created person. Ortner says that children are associated with nature in a number of societies (Ortner 1974: 78). This also implies that women are mainly associated with the household while men operate in the public and political domain, thus are the ones identified with society. Ortner stresses that in reality women are not any closer to nature than men, she just identifies this as the cultural ideas that make women appear to be closer to nature in societies. Thus formulation of ‘nature is to culture as female is to male’ gave anthropology an analytical framework which had great impact in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Moore 1988: 15).

Of course there are criticisms to every new model imposed by anthropologists, and Strathern argues against Ortner’s theory. She states that the demeaning value of domestic work is a Western construct and is not a cross-cultural representation of the domestic sphere, or even that of women. Many societies do make a connection between ‘female’ and ‘domestic’, but Strathern states that these associations cannot be explained in terms of Western constructs such as nature/culture and domestic/public (Strathern in Moore 1988: 40).

Questioning the cultural constructions of self through gender identity is where feminist anthropology continues to make an impact on theoretical development within the discipline. Annette Weiner re-analyzed Trobriand society to get the women’s perspective and view women as individuals. She writes that women have considerable power within their domain and certain cultural activities are the domain of women alone. She emphasizes the fact that women should be viewed as persons. Daryl Feil studied the Enga of New Guinea and states that for women to be viewed as persons they need to participate in the socio-political activities that are in the domain of men which is in contrast to Sacks’s idea that women have domains that are equal in value to those of men. Feil and Sacks differ again when Feil states that women’s power lies in their day-to-day affairs and Weiner emphasizes the cultural power of the symbolic encoding of femaleness, evident in activities and objects which are specifically female (Moore 1988: 39). The question here is whether it is enough to say women are powerful in their own domains or must feminists argue that women have power in everyday social life in the public and political domains which are the domains of men. This is a problem that feminist anthropologists have been attempting to deal with in their studies.

In conclusion, the most important contribution feminist anthropology has made to the discipline was the development of theories relating to gender identity and the cultural construction of gender, and what it means to be a ‘woman’ (Moore 1988: 187). The advent of feminist work brought about the invention of the ‘anthropology of gender’, an important field of research that owes its existence to feminist anthropology. Feminist anthropology’s most distinctive contribution is through demonstrating why an understanding of gender relations is important to the analysis of key questions in anthropology and in the social sciences as a whole. Feminist anthropology has made a comparative analysis of the cultural construction of gender, sexual division of labor, and the problems of capitalism. This comparative approach has allowed feminist anthropology to greatly advance the knowledge of these areas theoretically and empirically (Moore 1988: 195-196). Moore also states that the centrality that anthropology gives to the study of kinship relations in the context of the modern state suggests that feminist anthropology has an important contribution to make in the ways in which existing kinship systems structure state responses to the ‘family’ and the ‘household’.  

The feminist critique of the social sciences has been attributed to the breaking down of discipline barriers and the move towards multi-disciplinary scholarship. Feminist studies attempt not only to radicalize the disciplines, but to develop new research procedures and new relationships between academic theory and practice. Feminist anthropology emphasizes the relationship of gender differences to other forms of difference, which allows an opportunity to question the primacy which social anthropology has always accorded to cultural difference (Moore 1988: 1996). This is to suggest that forms of difference in human social life such as gender, class, race, culture, etc., are always experienced, constructed and mediated in interrelation with each other.

Abu-Lughod, L. 1987 “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing transformations of power through Bedouin women”. American Ethnologist, 17 (1): 41-55.
di Leonardo, M. (ed.) 1991 Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the postmodern era. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Haraway, D. 1988 “Situated Knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective”. Feminist Studies, 14 (3): 575-99. 
Moore, H.L. 1988 Feminism and Anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
Ortner, S. 1978 “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” In M. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (eds), Woman, Culture and Society, 67-88. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Strathern, M. 1987 “An Awkward Relationship: The case of feminism and anthropology”. Signs, 12(2): 276-292.
Strathern, M. 1988 The Gender of the Gift: Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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