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Feminist anthropology is an approach to studying cultural anthropology that aims to correct for a perceived androcentric bias within anthropology. It came to prominence in the early 1970s, although elements of it can be seen in the works of earlier anthropologists including Alice Fletcher, Marija Gimbutas, Margaret Ehrenberg, Emily Martin, and Margaret Mead.



Henrietta Moore, a prominent theorist of feminist anthropology, argued that women had been included in some sense in anthropological theory and research since the discipline's birth. Early anthropologists from James Frazer to E.E. Evans-Pritchard were interested in kinship and marriage, so women always appeared in their ethnographies, and a number of women wrote early anthropological works. The problem, Moore argued, was not of presence in anthropology but of interpretation, representation, and understanding. She cites a 1976 study by Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt et al. comparing analysis by male and female ethnographers of the social position of Aboriginal Australian women. Male ethnographers, Rohrlich-Leavitt wrote, said Aboriginal women were seen by their societies as profane and excluded from rituals, and were unimportant within the economy. The female ethnographers on the other hand said that the women were economically indispensable for subsistence, important in rituals, and were treated with respect by men. Moore presented this as proof that it is how women are included in anthropology that matters. The challenge, then, was to critically analyse existing anthropological literature and create new research, placing women at the centre.


Self-consciously feminist anthropology emerged during the 1970s as a series of challenges to anthropology's male bias.[1] Rayner Reiter's 1975 Toward an Anthropology of Women represented an early contribution to the emerging school, arguing that women and men experience gender differently from one another, with reference to different sets of social markers, and that the experience of women was in itself a legitimate subject for anthropological enquiry. Reiter pointed out male bias in the theories and assumptions of contemporary anthropology, introducing a new strand in anthropological self-criticism.[1] Reiter's contemporary Gayle Rubin had, also in 1975, coined the term "sex/gender system" to illustrate the difference between biological imperative and social behaviour, arguing that human expressions of gender and sexuality were not biological constants but politically constructed norms.


In 1988 Henrietta Moore published Feminism and Anthropology, an argument for a feminist anthropology conscious of the way gender difference relates to other markers of social difference, including class, ethnicity, and race. Moore contended that anthropology, even when carried out by women, tended to "[order] the world into a male idiom [. . .] because researchers are either men or women trained in a male oriented discipline".[2] Anthropology's theoretical architecture and practical methods, Moore argued, were so overwhelmingly influenced by sexist ideology (anthropology was commonly termed the "study of man" for much of the twentieth century) that without serious self-examination and a conscious effort to counter this bias, anthropology could not meaningfully represent female experience.

Moore argued too, though, that there was nothing self-evident or determinant about gender, and that anthropology - with its capacity to understand how differently cultures around the world conceive of gender and sex - could not treat the idea of womanhood as straightforward and unproblematic.

Feminist anthropology and feminism

The relationships of feminist anthropology with other strands of academic feminism are uneasy. By concerning themselves with the different ways in which different cultures constitute gender, feminist anthropology can contend that the oppression of women is not universal. Moore argued that the concept of "woman" is insufficiently universal to stand as an analytical category in anthropological enquiry: that the idea of 'woman' was specific to certain cultures, and not a human universal. For some feminists, anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo wrote, this argument contradicted a core principle of their understanding of relations between men and women.[3] Contemporary feminist anthropology, Marilyn Strathern writes, disagrees internally about whether sexual asymmetry is universal. Strathern argues that anthropology, which must deal with difference rather than seeking to erase it, is not necessarily harmed by this disagreement, but notes nonetheless that feminist anthropology faces resistance.[1]

Anthropology engages often with feminists from non-Western traditions, whose perspectives and experiences can differ from those of white European and American feminists. Historically, such 'peripheral' perspectives have sometimes been marginalized and regarded as less valid or important than knowledge from the western world. Feminist anthropologists have claimed that their research helps to correct this systematic bias in mainstream feminist theory. On the other hand, anthropologists' claims to include and engage with such other perspectives have in turn been criticised - local people are seen as the producers of local knowledge, which only the western anthropologist can convert into social science theory. Because feminist theorists come predominantly from the west, and do not emerge from the cultures they study (some of which have their own distinct traditions of feminism, like the grassroots feminism of Latin America), their ideas about feminism may contain western-specific assumptions that do not apply simply to the cultures they investigate. Rosaldo criticizes the tendency of feminists to treat other contemporary cultures as anachronistic, to see other parts of the world as representing other periods in western history - to say, for example, that gender relations in one country are somehow stuck at a past historical stage of those in another. Western feminists had, Rosaldo said, viewed women elsewhere as “ourselves undressed and the historical specificity of their lives and of our own becomes obscured”.[3] Anthropology, Moore argued, by speaking about and not for women, could overcome this bias.

Marilyn Strathern characterised the sometimes antagonistic relationship between feminism and anthroplogy as self-sustaining, since “each so nearly achieves what the other aims for as an ideal relation with the world."[1]. Feminism constantly poses a challenge to the androcentric orthodoxy from which anthropology emerges; anthropology undermines the ethnocentricism of feminism.

The 'double difference'

Feminist anthropology, Reiter argued, is subject to a 'double difference' from mainstream academia. It is a feminist tradition, part of a branch of scholarship sometimes marginalized as an offshoot of postmodernism and deconstructionism and concerned with the experiences of women, who are marginalized by an androcentric orthodoxy. At the same time it addresses non-Western experience and concepts, areas of knowledge deemed peripheral to the knowledge created in the west. It is thus doubly marginalized.

Moore argues that some of this marginalization is self-perpetuating. By insisting on the 'female point of view', feminist anthropology constantly defines itself as 'not male' and therefore as inevitably distinct from and marginal to the mainstream. Feminist anthropology, Moore says, effectively ghettoizes itself. Strathern argues that feminist anthropology, as a tradition posing a challenge to the mainstream, can never fully integrate with that mainstream: it exists to critique, to deconstruct, and to challenge.


  1. ^ a b c d Strathern, M (1987) “An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology,” in Signs, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp276-292, ISSN 0097-9740  
  2. ^ Moore, Henrietta L. (1988) Feminism and Anthropology, Polity Press: Cambridge. Henrietta L. Moore. (1988). Feminism and anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1748-1. OCLC 18259349.  
  3. ^ a b Rosaldo, M.Z. (1980) “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-Cultural Understanding,” in Signs, Vol 5, No3, pp389-417 , ISSN 0097-9740  

Further reading

  • Duley, Margot I. and Mary I. Edwards. (1986) The Cross-Cultural Study of Women: A Comprehensive Guide. New York, NY: Feminist Press. ed. by Margot I. Duley ... (1986). The cross-cultural study of women : a comprehensive guide. New York: Feminist Pr.. ISBN 0935312455. OCLC 9784721.  
  • Moore, Henrietta L. (1996) The Future of Anthropological Knowledge, London; New York: Routledge, edited by Henrietta Moore. (1996). The future of anthropological knowledge. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-4151-0786-5. OCLC 32924172.  
  • Nicholson, L. (1982) ‘Article Review on Rosaldo’s “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology,”’ in Signs, Vol 7, No. 42, pp732-735, ISSN 0097-9740  

See also

External links



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