Feminist anthropology is a field of study within anthropology that emphasizes the importance of gender in understanding human culture and experience.
Feminist anthropologists seek to understand the ways that gender shapes our lives and the world around us. In doing so, they challenge the traditional male-dominated perspective of anthropology and provide a much-needed female perspective on the human experience.
Feminist Anthropology – An Overview
Feminist anthropologists believe that women have been marginalized in the field of anthropology and that their experiences need to be taken into account in order to create a more holistic understanding of humanity.
There are many different schools of thought within feminist anthropology, but there are some key tenets that are shared by most feminists within the field. These include the belief that sex and gender are social constructs, that patriarchy is a global phenomenon, and that women’s experiences should be at the centre of research and theory.
Additionally, feminist anthropologists utilize qualitative research methods such as participant observation in order to obtain an intimate understanding of the lived experiences of women from different cultures.
The History of Feminist Anthropology
Feminist anthropology has its roots in early 20th-century scholarship, when women first began to be admitted into graduate programs in the field. In the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminism spurred a new wave of feminist scholarship in many disciplines, including anthropology. This scholarship critiqued the way that women and feminine norms had been largely absent from anthropological research and writing up until that point.
In the late 1960s, a group of women studying at Harvard University formed a study group called “Women in Anthropology.” This group was created in response to the overwhelming male presence in the field of anthropology and the lack of attention given to women’s experiences.
These women were often met with hostility and sexism from their male colleagues. In response, they began to organize and advocate for change within the field. They also began conducting their own research from a feminist perspective, which allowed them to offer new insights into familiar topics like family, religion, and childhood.
Feminists challenged assumptions about what was considered ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ behaviour for women, men, and children across cultures. They also critiqued the ways that Western ideologies about gender were being imposed on other cultures through colonialist or missionary practices. In short, feminist anthropologists worked to make sure that women’s voices were heard and that their experiences were included in research studies.
These women critiqued the way that anthropology had been conducted up until that point, arguing that it was biased against women and other marginalized groups. They also argued that women’s experiences needed to be more central to research and theory in order to create a more holistic understanding of humanity.
Pioneers of Feminist Anthropology
One of the key figures in early feminist anthropology is Sheila Rowbotham, who authored several important books on the subject. Rowbotham was instrumental in shaping early feminist thought and continues to be an important voice in the field today.
Another early and influential work of feminist anthropology was Ruth Behar‘s book “The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart.” In this memoir, Behar recounted her experiences as a woman doing fieldwork in Mexico and argued that women anthropologists often faced discrimination and exclusion both within academia and in the field.
This book helped to give voice to the experiences of many women within the discipline and inspired subsequent generations of feminist anthropologists to pursue research that was critical of patriarchal systems and focused on the lives of women and other marginalized groups.
In the 1990s, feminist anthropologists began to focus increasingly on issues such as globalization, colonialism, and postcolonialism.
The Key Tenets of Feminist Anthropology
Feminist anthropologists believe that gender is a key organizing principle in all human societies. They also believe that gender shapes our lives in fundamental ways. As a result, they pay close attention to how gender is represented in different cultures and how it affects our everyday experience.
As mentioned before, there are many different schools of thought within feminist anthropology, but there are some key tenets that are shared by most feminists within the field.
Sex and Gender and Social Constructs
The belief that sex and gender are social constructs is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of feminist anthropology. This belief runs counter to traditional biological determinism, which argues that our sex and gender identities are determined by our biology alone. Instead, feminists argue that our ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman are shaped by our cultures and societies. This idea has been borne out by research, which has shown that there is tremendous variation in how different cultures define masculinity and femininity.
Patriarchy is a Global Phenomenon
Another key tenet of feminist anthropology is the belief that patriarchy is a global phenomenon. Patriarchy refers to a system where men hold all or most of the power in society while women are largely confined to domestic roles such as childrearing and housework. While this system may vary somewhat from culture to culture, it exists in some form in almost all human societies around the world. Theorists argue that patriarchy stems from men’s historic control over resources such as land and livestock. In patriarchal societies, men use their power to control women’s labour and reproduction in order to maintain their own dominance.
Putting Women at the Centre of Research
The final key tenet of feminist anthropology is the idea that women’s experiences should be at the centre of research and theory. This is based on the belief that previous anthropological research has been too focused on men’s experiences while marginalizing or ignoring altogether the experiences of women. As a result, feminist anthropologists often use qualitative research methods such as participant observation in order to obtain an intimate understanding or portrayal of the lived experiences people from different cultures, particularly women.
Today: 2000s-Present Day
Today, feminist anthropology continues to build on this foundation by conducting research that focuses on the lives of women and other marginalized groups, such as LGBTQIA+ people, in diverse cultural contexts. However, challenges remain. One such challenge is that feminist anthropologists are often working against preconceived notions about what their research should look like. For example, some people still believe that feminist anthropology is only concerned with Women’s Studies type topics, like mothers and childcare.
The fact is that feminist anthropology has grown and evolved. One key development has been the increasing inclusion of transgender, nonbinary, and queer perspectives within the field. Another has been a renewed focus on activism and Praxis—the application of theory to real-world problems. Many feminist anthropologists today are working to use their skills and expertise to make positive change in the world through initiatives such as community organizing, policy advocacy, and grassroots activism.
In reality, feminist anthropologists are researching a wide range of topics, including economics, politics, religion, health care, education, art, and more. Another challenge facing feminist anthropology is the ongoing underrepresentation of women within the discipline itself. While women make up over half of all undergraduate anthropology majors in the United States , they hold just 33% of full professor positions . This means that there is still much work to be done in terms of promoting gender equality within the field of anthropology.
Feminist anthropology has come a long way since its beginnings in the early 20th century. Today, it is an active and thriving subfield that is constantly evolving to meet new challenges. As our understanding of gender continues to evolve, so too will feminist anthropology.
Glossary Terms starting with F
- Fascism – Its Origins, Evolution, and its misuse of Anthropology
- Feminist Anthropology
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links. When you use one of these affiliate links, the company compensates us. At no additional cost to you, we will earn a commission, which helps us run this blog and keep our in-depth content free of charge for all our readers.