There are two ways to interpret “the anthropology of women:” One is as the work of women anthropologists, and the other is as anthropology that focuses on women as its subject. This entry deals with the latter, although for many reasons, the two often go hand in hand. Feminist anthropology, the ethnography of women, and female anthropologists have all been historically associated together, as it was feminist anthropologists—most of them women—who were first interested in doing fieldwork with women, writing ethnography about women, researching anthropological questions about women, and writing theory about women and gender.
Many early ethnographies are notable for a distinct lack of women. Early male (and some female) ethnographers, speaking mostly or entirely to male informants, managed to create many ethnographic accounts that seemed to be entirely about men. A chapter in such an ethnography might be devoted to marriage and children (in which women would naturally figure as indispensable to these activities), but women were largely absent from early depictions of traditional life. Likewise, gender and women’s concerns were also largely absent from early theory. As women entered the field of anthropology—quite early—many of them noticed this oversight and began to take steps to amend it.
We can characterize the anthropology of women as falling into four categories so far: the study of women in relation to men and gender roles (“women and men”); large-scale cross-cultural theorizing about the position of women globally (“woman, culture, and society”); the study of women’s activities as valuable in and of themselves (“filling the gap” left by prior anthropologists); and last, the more modern view of positioning studies of women within a framework of gender and other cultural forces, often foregrounding agency and practice (“positioned studies”—because of the different theories and views the anthropologist may bring to bear). While these categories follow a roughly chronological order in their development, they do not follow a chronological order in their use; for example, many anthropologists still do gender role studies today (as indeed we should, as our understanding of gender is very different now than it was 70 years ago).
Sex and Temperament, Women and Men
Margaret Mead, arguably one of the most famous early anthropologists, focused much of her work not only on women in society, but on questions of gender and gender roles. Her most famous work, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation (1928), examines the lives of teenaged girls, a population mostly ignored by previous anthropologists. Much of her work focused on gender and the relations between men and women, and this focus meant that researchers and readers of her popular works alike were aware as never before of women as a worthy subject of study.
Mead’s famous Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) first raised the question of whether gender roles as they were conceived by Western culture were biological and thus unchangeable, or whether they were cultural and societal. In exploring three cultures in Papua New Guinea with distinctly different gender roles, Mead revealed that in the Arapesh culture, both sexes behaved in ways characterized by Western cultures as “feminine”; among the Mundugumor, both sexes behaved in aggressive ways that would be characterized in Western cultures as “masculine”; and the Tchambuli had gender roles that could be construed as reversed by Western standards. While the use of terms such as “masculine” and “feminine” was arguably problematic (as the gender roles were perfectly normal for men and women in those societies), the point that gender roles differ to a great extent across cultures was made very effectively. Mead was thus able to argue that gender roles were formed by culture rather than biology and were not only variable between cultures, but also possibly changeable over time. This study—and her elaboration on this theme, her book Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (1949)—is often credited with inspiring anthropologists to pay more attention to women, gender roles, and the relations between men and women in the field.
What Do We Know About Women?
In 1974, the Woman, Culture, and Society collection was published by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, in response to a series of lectures at Stanford called “Women in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” The collection was groundbreaking in that it addressed women as subjects for ethnographic study outside the usual bounds of marriage and child rearing and it served as a forum for cross-cultural theory. Sherry Ortner remarked in her later publication Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture (1996) that she protested that she didn’t know anything about women when she was recruited to write an essay for the collection in 1971 but was told that no one else did either—it was an experimental publication, an exploration into unknown territory, the presentation of entirely new theories and new ethnographic material. It included essays on women in politics, women and language, women and family, and the myth of matriarchy, among other rich subjects.
While all the essays published in Woman, Culture, and Society are worthy of note, two in particular are often referenced today. These are Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture” (first published in Feminist Studies) and Rosaldo’s “Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” both of which propose particular theories about gender roles. The subject was typical of the era: Why is male dominance universal? It is notable that theorists of the time assumed that male dominance was universal (something that gender theorists no longer completely agree on; for one thing, the definition of dominance is much more complex, as we will explore below) and furthermore that they were interested in looking at the cultural (rather than at biological) reasons for this cross-cultural trend. We can see Mead’s legacy here—if gender roles are cultural, then gender inequity is cultural as well.
Ortner’s essay analyzes gender inequity in terms of cultural associations. She asserts that most cultures associate women with nature because of uncontrollable biological forces, such as menstruation and childbirth, and their association with unsocialized, “natural” infants and children. Men, she argues, are more associated with culture because their freedom from reproductive duties allows them more time for cultural activities. Furthermore, in most if not all cultures, culture is more highly valued than nature, because culture tames, “cooks” (to borrow from Lévi-Strauss), and civilizes raw nature into human culture. Therefore, because of these associations, women are less valued, their activities are less valued (even when these activities involve acculturating raw human infants into civilized human beings), and they accrue less status. Ortner argues that these symbolic values are cultural and therefore changeable and that women are equally cultural (human) as men and therefore not in reality “closer to nature.”
Rosaldo’s essay takes a different approach. Although she also links women’s assumed lower position vis-à-vis men across cultures with female reproductive duties, she instead looks at the division between the domestic and the public. She argues that because of child rearing, women have been historically associated with the domestic in all societies and that the domestic sphere tends to be less valued than the public sphere, where men predominate. This analysis looks less at symbolic associations (as Ortner’s essay does) and more at economic opportunities, although the relative values of the domestic and the public spheres are symbolic as well. Rosaldo argues, as Ortner does, that the values associated with the public and domestic spheres are arbitrary, as is the relative dominance of men in the public sphere and women in the domestic.
The Toward an Anthropology of Women collection in 1975 represents another milestone in the anthropology of women. This collection notes a strong bias in the field of anthropology of the time to assume a simplistic, direct correlation between biology and gender roles, and it calls for more direct fieldwork, as the wide range of gender roles already suggested a cultural origin for them. The introduction (by Rayna R. Reiter) also notes that anthropology tends to have a double male bias, as it is written from a male academic perspective and is often (although not always) done in male-dominant societies. And last, Reiter problematizes the term dominance, noting that we do not have a singular definition for what we mean by it and that the people on either side of the “dominant” relationship may have different interpretations of it.
The essays included in the collection range from many detailed ethnographic accounts about women in different settings—including the Kalahari, Papua New Guinea, the Iroquois nation, the South of France, a Spanish village, Italy, the Dominican Republic, rural Colombia, Niger, and rural China—but also many theoretical essays, covering subjects that range from the much-debated matriarchy, to forager society, to the origin of the family. It also contains the first printing of Gayle Rubin’s much-cited essay on “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.”
Rubin introduces the concept of the “sex/gender system” into the theoretical discussions about women and society. She suggests that previous theories fall short of the mark in explaining why women are cross-culturally oppressed. (Like the previous theorists discussed in this section, she assumes global male dominance.) However, she proposes that these theories can be used to build a picture of current cross-cultural forces creating gender inequities.
The theories Rubin analyzes include Marxist theory, which she points out does not explain why women are oppressed in noncapitalist societies, and Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the “exchange of women,” which she sees as a confusion of the actual complex system of rights, social relationships, and statuses (one in which women do not have the same rights as men). Furthermore, she notes, the exchange of women is predicated on the family and the sexual division of labor (another analysis by Lévi-Strauss), and this arrangement therefore is predicated on the construction of gender, sex, and obligatory heterosexuality— all constructed by culture. Rubin then turns to Freud and Lacan, postulating a “phallic culture” in which women are exchanged (in kinship structures) for phallic symbols, and moreover asserting that Freud’s analysis of feminine psychological development is an accurate picture of how this phallic culture domesticates and dominates women. She sees Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of kinship and Freud’s analysis of the development of gender as fitting into one another like the pieces of a puzzle: Kinship depends on clearly defined sex roles, which depend on clearly defined genders, which develop out of familial structures that depend on kinship. This structure, she states clearly, is all dependent on removing rights, sexual pleasure, and opportunities from women. Furthermore, if one reintroduces Marx, one can see that the “exchange” of women in kinship structures has profound implications for economy, religion, and symbolic structures—it impacts many other aspects of social life. Therefore, it is not really possible to understand a culture without understanding the role and position of women in that culture.
Rubin concludes by noting that the sex/gender system, which is what she calls the interlocking leaves of the “traffic in women,” is dependent on both halves of the system, the kinship and the sexual. If the sexual division of labor were not observed (if men as well as women cared for children), if heterosexuality were not compulsory, and if there were no “exchange of women,” this system, which has already been stripped to its bones, sex/gender, in Western society, would break down. She calls for the elimination of the sex/gender system altogether, a system she feels is oppressive to both genders in that it prescribes extremely narrow roles.
All of these essays—and many more written during this era—represent the anthropological trend at the time toward “big-picture thinking:” attempts toward constructing cross-cultural explanations for trends and theorizing about human beings as a whole. The construction of male dominance as a global problem is also typical of Western feminist thinking of the 1970s. The topics of the essays were fueled by the second wave of feminism; indeed, it could be argued that this interest in the position of women and women themselves cross-culturally would not have emerged without feminism. These essays, however, present theories that are still used today as ways to explain why there is a trend toward male dominance (although one must be careful how one defines it) in many cultures across the globe.
Filling a Gap: Writing About the Unwritten
In addition to theoretical essays, the anthropology of women has also been concerned—and is still concerned—with simply writing ethnography about women. The peculiar absence of women in early ethnographies means that there is much yet to be learned about women’s lives across the globe. And given that there are many more cultures than there are anthropologists, there is still much more to learn about women in many societies. “Filling the gap”—producing and exploring ethnographies about women—is done in many ways and for different reasons. Filling the gap may involve simply filling a gaping hole in ethnographic knowledge; trying to explore issues in Western culture; dealing with a sex-segregated society; dealing with a sex-segregated aspect of culture that impacts society; or remedying inattention to women’s involvement in important cultural matters.
It is interesting that ethnography about women actually began early on in the history of anthropology— well before the second wave of feminism provoked global theorizing about women cross-culturally. However, feminism increased awareness and interest in women’s lives and many more ethnographies focused on women began to be published in the 1970s. All the same, ethnographies on women do exist prior to the explosion of theory in the 1970s. Two excellent examples are Ruth Landes’s The Ojibwa Woman (1938) and Ruth Underhill’s Papago Woman (first published as The Autobiography of a Papago Woman, Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association No. 46, 1934). Both of these are biographies, or autobiographies, if you will, stories told to the (woman) ethnographer by the women involved.
Underhill’s Papago Woman recounts the life of a woman of the Papago people, Native Americans living in the Arizona area. Underhill’s interviews took place late in her informant’s life and cover many aspects of Papago life as well as Maria Choma’s own complex life story. Landes’s The Ojibwa Woman, in contrast, presents the stories of a single woman, which are not about herself, but about other women of the tribe. Both ethnographies, as well as others published during this time, are intended to record information about the women of these peoples, who have been largely ignored in other ethnographies or conventional accounts.
This interesting trend of “biographical ethnography,” established so early in the anthropology of women, continues to the present day. Although the focuses of such biographies of women change, ethnographies of particular women have always been a distinguishing feature of the anthropology of women.
The classic example of such an ethnography is Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (1981).
Shostak’s ethnography is not only Nisa’s life story; Shostak also provides chapter introductions that are intended to produce a larger ethnographic explanation of !Kung life. The ethnography is also intended, as Shostak explains in the introduction, not only to introduce the reader to a largely gender-egalitarian way of life but also to answer questions about Western culture and gender roles as well. The use of Nisa’s life story in this way is a particular style of ethnography that owes much to the “big-picture” questions discussed in the previous section: Is male dominance universal? Shostak asks. What can Nisa’s life tell us about our own society? (Later styles of biographical ethnography focus on very different things, as we shall see below.)
Not all ethnographies of women focus on particular women, of course. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, originally a journalist, produced a series of remarkable ethnographies of women in the Middle East while traveling there with her anthropologist husband. Her Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of An Iraqi Village (1965), an account of living with Iraqi women in an isolated village, is an excellent ethnography of a group her husband could not possibly have had access to—the women in a highly sex-segregated society. Although cases like Fernea’s are rarer today (we like to think that most anthropologists enter the field on their own account), the fact is that female anthropologists are more able to access female informants in many contexts, especially sex-segregated ones. Access to women in sex-segregated societies is one argument for using female anthropologists to fill the gap of information on these societies.
Another example of female access on the part of the anthropologist is Diane Bell’s Daughters of the Dreaming (1993), an exploration of aboriginal women’s ritual activity and religion at Warrabiri in Central Australia. While the people she worked with were not a sex-segregated society—far from it—her subject was a sex-segregated one, as magic, religion, and ritual often require sex segregation in this culture. Her ethnography covers the entire community of men and women, with a particular focus on the subject of women’s ritual, religion, and magic and how it influences the community and the impact it has on gender and people’s lives. Bell produced an important ethnography, for while we know a great deal about men’s ritual, we know much less about the ritual of women and how it is intertwined into the lives of people in general.
Last, Annette Weiner’s Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange (1976) should be mentioned as a final example. Published in the same era as Woman, Culture, and Society and Toward an Anthropology of Women, this volume represents an ambitious attempt to refigure exchange and value in the Trobriand Islands, the same area where Malinowski did his fieldwork. Focusing on exchange between women as well as the exchange between men made so famous by Malinowski, Wiener suggests that there are entire dimensions of Trobriand value and exchange that we simply did not know about, because women and their work and exchange systems were previously omitted from the analysis. Her version of filling the gap suggests that omitting women from the picture in the first place may have resulted in an inaccurate portrait of Trobriand exchange.
Positioning Ourselves: Writing About Women, Writing About Theory
Current work in the anthropology of women is extremely diverse. Although Kamala Visweswaran suggests in her “Histories of Feminist Ethnography” (1996) that the problematization of “woman” as a biological (and therefore universal) category has to some extent scattered work in the field, the anthropology of women is still very active, though it varies widely. This question, among others, has complicated the issue of doing fieldwork among women: How do we define women if anthropologists view sex as a social rather than as a purely biological category? That is, since we cannot experience our biology save through the lens of our culture, biology has cultural meaning. Given that cultural meanings can vary, is there really a single category of people called women?
How do we locate women in the web of race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, nation, and other relationships? What about the relationship of power between the anthropologist and the informant, especially considering that we’re working in a world shaped by colonialism? And what is gender, and how does it work?
All of these questions and more are being posed by theorists and ethnographers today. Let’s start with a familiar name, Sherry Ortner, who in the 1970s wrote a famous essay (“Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture,” above) and has been writing ever since. Her essay “Making Gender: Toward a Feminist, Minority, Postcolonial, Subaltern, etc., Theory of Practice” introduces the problem of dealing with structural forces and agency. Too much emphasis on the former erases the ability of the individual to make decisions; too much emphasis on the latter often results in a blame-the-victim mentality. Ortner proposes using practice theory (sometimes called “praxis theory”) to analyze how people negotiate their own agency and power within the constraints of structural forces. What does this have to do with gender? Practice theory allows one, Ortner argues, to look at motivations and constraints without being blinded by or ignoring gender, as well as seeing gender as a system in which people have a certain amount of agency while dealing with the constraints of their culture.
Lila Abu-Lughod suggests a different theory and a different method. Her theory is inextricably intertwined with her ethnography, and she engages a program of “writing against culture.” In Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993), Abu-Lughod suggests that anthropology uses ethnography and the concept of “the culture” as a form of division and difference, and she sets up her ethnography—the stories of individual women, told in their words (although chosen, arranged, and translated by Abu-Lughod)— to combat that. There is no commentary, no frame as there was with Shostak’s Nisa. Abu-Lughod presents us with the lives of individual women (in a callback to the ethnographic biography), in order to let readers find their own commonalities with Bedouin women.
An excellent example of a positioned ethnographic biography is Ruth Behar’s Translated Woman: Crossing the Border With Esperanza’s Story, which deals with issues not only of translation and border crossings in her recounting of one Mexican woman’s life but also with identity, both Esperanza’s and her own. Behar, considered Cubana and a Spanish speaker in the United States, is a gringa in Mexico, and her dual identity is one of the things that she reflects on in the epilogue, as well as Esperanza’s identity as a mestitza and a native of a country poorer than her own. Power struggles, poverty, language, and race all tie into Behar’s and Esperanza’s identities as women. This ethnographical biography examines the power relationship between the ethnographer and the informant as well as their more intimate relationship as two women who were friends and comadres.
Ruth Behar was also a coeditor, with Deborah A. Gordon, of the Women Writing Culture (1995) collection, a book that ambitiously looks beyond collecting ethnographies or theories to the creation of a feminist canon in the anthropology of women. The Introduction by Behar suggests the creation of such a canon of anthropological theory, and the volume’s essays suggest an emphasis on a new vision of anthropology. While this book might be more firmly placed in “feminist anthropology” than in “the anthropology of women,” it is telling that the ethnographies published in it—Smadar Lavie’s work with third world women poets in Israel, for example, and Aiwha Ong’s essay on views of Chinese women—are of women. Feminist anthropology is concerned not just with the anthropology of women, but it is definitely concerned with it, and that concern is reflected in this volume.
Both current concerns with gender theory and particular populations are reflected in Kath Weston’s work. Weston researched gender and gender identity among lesbians in her book Render Me, Gender Me: Lesbians Talk Class, Color, Nation, Studmuffins… (1996). Both the idea that gender is not inextricably linked to the division between male and female and the identification of lesbians as a population that have historically not been well researched make Weston’s work highly valuable in the anthropology of women.
Certain elements in the study of reproduction and motherhood have been a focus of researchers in the anthropology of women all along. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, in her classic ethnography Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1992), looked at maternity and child death among the poorest of the poor in Brazil, using a study of societal and political forces to show that the lives of poor women are both strategic and embedded in larger social forces that produce poverty.
All of these examples (taken from a much larger canon) of ethnography about women showcase the diversity of current writing about women and theorizing about women and anthropology. Despite—or perhaps because of—the many different theoretical approaches to the anthropology of women today, it is a flourishing and fascinating field.
- Reiter, R. R. (1975). Toward an anthropology of women. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Rosaldo, M. Z., & Louise L. (Eds.). (1974). Woman, culture, and society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.