Angela Bratton

Posted May 1998






Feminist Anthropology can be divided into three approximate temporal categories. The first division is from 1850 to 1920 and is also referred to as the first wave or suffrage feminism. Up to this point ethnographies and much research in general had been done primarily by men for men and were informed by the presumption that biological sex determined an individual’s roles in society. What first wave feminists sought to do was to include women’s voices in ethnography, giving a female perspective on experience and events. This opened up a completely new perspective, since male ethnographers generally only had access to other males, and therefore, could only observe them or could only get their accounts of what women were like or what they were supposed to be like.

One of the women who was fundamental to this movement was Elsie Clews Parsons. She began her career with a Ph.D. in Sociology from Columbia in 1899, but after meeting Pliny, Goldenweiser, Lowie, Kroeber, Sapir, and Boas several years later, she was converted to anthropology. Parsons was very much a social activist, using her ethnographic skills to encourage people to think in new ways about their own experiences and lives. In order to further promote social reform, she thought it was very important that anthropology be taught as part of all liberal education. Her insightful notions of feminism and of the determinants for social and cultural norms are still being debated today. Through her travels with male anthropological colleagues to the southwest, Parsons sought to break the restrictions placed on men and women working together. She never held a formal position teaching anthropology at a university, but her influence was far reaching. Using her wealth and affluence, she established the Southwest Society, which helped support anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict, and underwrote The Journal of American Folklore (Deacon 1997).

Another first wave feminist was Alice Fletcher, who was among the first generation of professional anthropologists, being the first woman to have a paid professional position at Harvard. Like Parsons, she was an activist and a reformer, but her interests rested mainly with American Indians. She codeveloped the Dawes Act which sought to break up reservations, and to undo the notion that the Indians should be wards of the state. She worked on Plains Indians’ ceremonies and music. She was also interested in suffrage and helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women (Winter 1991; Fletcher 1897).

Within British anthropology, Phyllis Kayberry was a pioneer of anthropological research on women in specific social and political contexts. Kayberry earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, where she worked with Malinowski. Her work examined both men and women and their relationships, with a special focus on religion. She developed a systematic study of gender relationships in her book Women of the Grassfields, which had great significance following decolonization in Africa after WW II. The classic text focuses on women’s work and rural development, an area resurrected by recent anthropological work on development, which has found that existing economic models for development have totally ignored the contributions of women’s labor.

Second wave feminism stretched from approximately 1920 to 1980. These feminists separated sex and gender as descriptive categories; previously they had been used interchangeably. Sex is defined as determined by biology and in turn effecting biology. Gender is seen as culturally defined. The category "woman" could unite all females, as it was considered the most significant role and therefore the strongest categorical identification. Anthropologists tended to write as if all women had the same experiences and problems. Additionally, concepts were frequently set up as opposing dichotomies i.e. sex/culture, men/women, work/home; this may have been convenient for comparison, but it did not allow for overlap between these terms.

Margaret Mead was a key contributor to this distinction. It was her work in a diversity of cultures which allowed her work to help break down prejudices that were based on concepts of what is "natural" into an understanding of the importance of culture in people’s development. One of the prominent Boasians, Margaret Mead, made major contributions with her work, which examined the influence of culture on human social development in separating biological and cultural factors that control human behavior and personality development. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) was a landmark work and many of its conclusions were revisited and expanded upon in Sex and Temperament (1950). Her influence extended beyond anthropology because it was so popular among general audiences (McGee and Warms 1996).

There were also two authors from outside of anthropology that influenced feminist anthropology at this time. The first was Simone de Beauvoir, a French existentialist philosopher, whose Second Sex (1952) argued that women have been defined by men and that if they attempt to break with this definition they risk alienating themselves. The second was Betty Friedan, psychologist and cofounder of the National Organization for Women, whose book The Feminine Mystique (1963) looked at gender roles inside families and questioned whether fulfillment for modern women was to be found in traditional roles.

In the second half of this second wave, frequently referred to as the "Anthropology of Women," Eleanor Leacock’s ethnohistorical studies of the Innu were influential. She focused on social and gender relations while reevaluating Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ work. She also challenged Julian Steward’s work on hunting and trapping using a method called "anthropology on the ground." Leacock talked to English speaking informants to find out what, when, and where they hunted, then she mapped out the pattern herself to avoid informant’s overgeneralization (Gacs, Khan, McIntyre, & Weinberg 1989).

In the early 1970s women like Lucy Slocum argued that anthropological studies had androcentric and eurocentric biases and assumptions. This notion also influenced archaeologists and primatologists who questioned the man-the-hunter hypothesis, and whose work has challenged the simplistic assignment of jobs and roles on the basis of biological differences in skeletal material (Morgen 1989). In 1974, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere edited another groundbreaking work, Woman, Culture, and Society, which emerged from a class at Stanford University. Rosaldo argued that because women frequently participate in behaviors that limit them, one must perform an analysis of the larger system in order to understand gender inquality (Collier and Yanagisako 1989). Jane Collier and Sylvia Yanagisako have expanded upon Rosaldo’s work in analyzing the formation of gender through hierarchical structures.

Gayle Rubin (1975) also insisted that gender be brought to the anthropological table. She introduced the "sex/gender system": which again distinguished biology from behavior. This text started a discussion which has kept its momentum over the last 20 years (Cassell 1996). It was also at this time that women’s studies in anthropology became formalized as feminist anthropology, a field that has since continued to produce pioneering work on representation (Morgen 1989). In Is Male is to Females as Nature is to Culture? Sherry Ortner (1974) examines women’s subordination to men cross-culturally and through time, arguing that women have always been symbolically associated with nature. Nature is subordinate to men; therefore, women are subordinate to men. Marxists feminists’ explanations also build on Engels’ thesis that women’s subordination is the result of their lack of access to the productive sphere. These theories necessarily assume that across time and space, women have always been subordinate to men. In the contemporary British tradition, Shirley Ardner worked on the concept of women’s status as a "muted group." Others, such as Pat Caplan and Janet Bujura, were part of the London Women’s Anthropology group which evaluated female solidarity and the popularity of Marxist theory brought about research with women, reproduction, and production (Lamphere 1997).

Third wave feminism extends from roughly 1980 to the present. Anthropologists in earlier years had been "haunted" by biological determinism which suggested that sex was a straightforward cause and effect phenomenon based in physiological differences. However, these questions cannot be simplified to a cause and effect relationship and trends since the 1980s propose a reversal of the earlier separation of biology and culture by indicating that sex is also a social category like gender, because people do have social expectations which are based on the physical body. Additionally, more detailed work in endocrinology and physiology made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between biological and cultural factors. The dichotomies stressed by second wave feminists were problematic, because at times it was hard to separate the category of woman from man or from other factors such as class. Third wave feminism was also influence by Said’s Orientalism, and by postmodern discourse in general, which encouraged an evaluation of the politics of representation. Being categorized as woman no longer supersedes other distinctions and roles. Class, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, etc. are also recognized as important characteristics that diversify the category of women; in other words it is acknowledged that all women do not have the same universal needs and experiences. Feminism pioneered work in representation, recognizing that theories are influenced by historical, political, social, and cultural contexts which bring about questions regarding anthropologists relationships with their informants. Feminism in the 1980s and 1990s has centered on production and work, reproduction and sexuality, and gender and the state (Lamphere 1997; Morgen 1989). It has also been during this time that men in the "Anthropology of Men" began to look at "man" in a fashion similar to the feminist evaluation of "woman." In the 1990s women’s studies would be changed to gender studies, reflecting a more comprehensive perspective.


There are four overriding theories or lines of thinking that have influenced feminist anthropology over the last 18 years. The first is practice theory [some prefer to call this a symbol and not a theory i.e. Collier and Yanagisako] which borrows from Marx’s suggestion that all social activity comes down to praxis (practice). Feminist practice is about real people doing real things; culture is therefore deliberate. It is about how people behave, not about a quality they possess (Conkey & Gero 1997). The system that practice analyzes is one of equality and restriction. There is a realization that the anthropological perspective carries a powerful influence. It is a reaction against Durkheim’s notion of the sacred and the profane, which assumed that women did not have a symbolic position. It also questions how systems can be reproduced despite their inequality, instability, and contradictions and it disputes the necessity of breaking everything into dichotomies. Durkheim’s static system is replaced with a dynamic of struggle and resistance (Collier and Yanagisako 1989). Ortner (1996), also a prominent figure in the third wave, argues that gender is determined by the consideration of women as creators of nature, e.g. children, and men as creators of culture. This basic theme is carried through various articles in Making Gender. Ortner suggests that women were once considered dangerous and therefore, had rules, but now they are perceived to be in danger, so they still have rules to follow (her explanation for the ideal of female virginity). One chapter contains a lengthy discussion about rank and gender in Polynesia, another discusses Tibetan monks and nuns. In both cases not everything is what it appears to be on the surface. One of Ortner’s main points is that women may be excluded from certain positions, etc. but so are most men who do not rank high in the society.

In the late 1980s the theory of positionality developed as a reaction against cultural feminism, an essentialist view which suggests that there is a female essence and that female values should be validated. In other words women should not be putting on business suits and entering men’s worlds, but should be promoting their female essence and its positive characteristics (e.g. nurturing). In other words they can play by their own rules. Major proponents of this include Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich. On the other hand French post-structuralists have criticized cultural feminism because it seemingly ignores the oppressive powers under which those values were created. This results in a "negative feminism" in the sense that they are tearing concepts down instead of building them up. Positionality argues that such tactics may make the hard-won category of gender invisible once again (Alcoff 1994).

The third recent influence on feminist anthropology is performance theory - an extension of the anti-structuralism of the 1970s. It "defines gender as the effect of discourse, and sex as the effect of gender. The theory is characterized by a concern with the productive force rather than the meaning of discourse and by its privileging of ambiguity and indeterminacy" (Morris 1995: 567). Advocates of performance theory have been influenced by Bourdieu, de Certeau, and even Sahlins, whose theory of cultural history suggests that change occurs because of competing interests and different advantages at any one time in history (Morris 1995).

The fourth influence, queer theory, defines itself in opposition to the concept of "normalcy," challenging the normativity of heterosexuality, and highlighting the effects of socialization on sexual identity. Queer theory attempts to cut across traditions in gender studies. It has been strongly influenced by Foucault and constructionalist theory as well as by contemporary writers include Judith Mayne, Judith Butler, and Diana Fuss. French feminists such as Monique Wittig have also made large contributions to the theory (Warner 1993).

Other prominent researchers in the third wave include Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who recorded the life histories of Brazilian women, and Anna Tsing (1993) who wrote about marginality in Indonesia. They are part of a group of feminist ethnographic writers who have been instrumental in suggesting that there is no universal definition for "man" and "woman" across cultures or throughout history. Also included in this group is Lila Abu-Lughod whose book, Writing Women’s Worlds, attempts to deconstruct the ethnographic treatment of culture. One of her central themes is that culture is boundless. By sharing Bedouin women’s stories, Abu-Lughod demonstrates that Bedouin women find advantages in a gender separated society. Subsequent work has also been done to clear the great misunderstandings many western feminists have regarding Islam and Hinduism. Feminists in the Middle East and in India have done a great deal of work on issues surrounding the veil and seclusion, and the phenomenon of bride burning. These scholars have also closely analyzed the considerable regional variations in conformity to the "traditional" precepts of Islam. Like other areas of the world, the Middle East is diversified by variations in economy, politics, religion, ethnicity, and class, and scholars have sought to understand the different experiences thus produced at local levels. There have been similarly significant discussions influenced by the post colonial realization, but with the realization that western feminists’ concepts of oppression, subjugation, and exploitation may not always be appropriate in other contexts (Hale 1989; Fruzzetti 1989).

Some recent feminist anthropology research in the U.S. has emphasized the subordination of women’s bodies. Peggy Sanday’s provocative work looks at power relationships through rape. Emily Martin (1997) takes a different approach by examining stereotypes embedded in both the research and discourse of physical science. She cites examples where women’s reproductive processes are depicted as less important than those of men. For example, menstruation means that an egg has failed to be fertilized, uterine lining is labeled as "debris," and men are seen as more prolific in being able to produce more gametes than women. Even more ironic is that this discourse personifies and genders cells, an effect Martin finds extremely disturbing.


Today feminist anthropology is a subset within cultural anthropology whose point of view can be expressed either through the use of a specific theory, as delineated above, or through its general use as a lens for looking at other categories and subfields e.g. political, development, archaeology, etc. Contemporary research goes much further than including the female voice. It has not lost sight of the material aspects of women’s subordination. While it continues to analyze gender division in production, ambiguity is now recognized between what can be attributed to biology or to culture. Additionally, recent work by feminist anthropologists has looked at child care, reproductive rights, control of resources and inequality, aggression, performance in school, female circumcision etc. (Ember 1996).


Though still a broad field, certain shared concerns of feminist anthropologists have been formalized in the Association for Feminist Anthropology. The AFA is a section in the American Anthropological Association that was founded in 1988 with the purpose of creating a network of people interested in gender research. They publish a newsletter, Voices, three times a year (in November, February, and July). Feminist anthropologists also publish frequently in Signs, an interdisciplinary journal published by University of Chicago Press since 1975. By 1993 the AFA had a membership of over 700 and they were sponsoring sessions at the AAA annual meetings. The current Chair (1996-98) is Louise Lamphere from the University of New Mexico. Their statement of purpose reads:

1. The purposes of the Section shall be (a) to foster development of feminist analytic perspectives in all dimensions of anthropology; (b) to facilitate communication among feminist anthropologists and between them and feminist scholars in other related fields; (c) to provide information on issues related to gender differences and to gender based discrimination to the discipline and the public; (d) to encourage integration of feminist research from the different subfields of anthropology and to bring the focal concerns of feminist anthropology into the development of the subdisciplines (AAA 1998).

The association also sponsors the Sylvia Forman essay contest to recognize promising new research by feminist scholars. Forman was a feminist anthropologist who wrote on employment among other things. This year’s submitted essays reflect the diversity in feminist research. Some topics include research on battered women who kill their abusers, gender and street survival, motherhood and space, women and religion, marriage, homosexuality, etc. (Rodriguez 1998). Her former students also published a book in her memory, entitled Gender and Race Through Education and Political Activism (1995) which are examples of her influence on her students work.

In summary, feminist anthropology has contributed a diverse group of voices to the field from the point of view of the researcher, in addition to representing voices from a plethora of different groups of women. As part of a broader feminist project, it has been a part of the promotion of women voices and interests, insisting that women be heard, even when they may have to take more subtle approaches to authority through acts of resistance. Feminist scholars have been influential in the fight for women’s rights for pay equity in the U.S. and the right to work in the public or private sphere, and have stressed that women have the right to make choices for themselves. However, there has been a growing awareness that these things are not necessarily issues for all women around the world, and feminist anthropology has tried to bring to light their concerns and to find ways in which these women can empower themselves to effect change.



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