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Histories of feminist ethnography

Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997. 26:591–621 Copyright 1997 by Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved ETHNOGRAPHYKamala VisweswaranDepartment of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712- KEY WORDS: gender analysis, feminism, women anthropologists This review essay illustrates how changes in the conception of gender define the historical production of feminist ethnography in four distinct periods. In the first period (1880–1920), biological sex was seen to determine social roles, and gender was not seen as separable from sex, though it was beginning to emerge as an analytical category. The second period (1920–1960) marks the separation of sex from gender as sex was increasingly seen as indeterminative of gender roles. In the third period (1960–1980), the distinction between sex and gender was elaborated into the notion of a sex/gender system—the idea that different societies organized brute biological facts into particular gender regimes. By the contemporary period (1980–1996), critiques of “gender es- sentialism” (the reification of “woman” as a biological or universal category) suggest that the analytical separation between sex and gender is miscast be- cause “sex” is itself a social category.
IntroductionAlthough the term “feminist ethnography” has only recently emerged (Abu- by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Lughod 1990, Stacey 1988, Visweswaran 1988), and is now included in feminist Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from research manuals as one of a variety of interdisciplinary research methods (Rei- narz 1992), its relationship to the “writing culture” critique of anthropological representation (Clifford & Marcus 1986, Marcus & Cushman 1982, Marcus & Fisher 1986) has meant that discussions of feminist ethnography have focused more on redefining the genre of ethnography than in actually exploring what is meant by “feminist.” Women in the discipline, however, have long experi- mented with form: Elsie Clews Parsons (Babcock 1992), Ella Deloria (1988), Zora Neale Hurston (1938), and Ruth Landes (1947) are but a few examples.
Thus, the focus on form and genre has meant that a lineage from Elsie Clews Parsons to current feminist ethnographers has been established at the expense of a more detailed examination of what distinguishes Parsons’s ethnography from that of her contemporaries or later writers.
This review proposes to redirect such discussion by looking specifically at what modifies these texts as “feminist” to assess the historical influence of feminist ethnography upon the discipline (see also Collier & Yanagisako 1989). It is an attempt to move away from the dominant terms that inform the history of anthropology—evolutionist or particularist, functionalist or struc- turalist, Marxist or symbolic (Ortner 1984)—to understand how gender has become an ordering category of anthropological analysis. It further attempts to use ethnography as a means of tracing shifts in the conceptualization of gender The question of whether the term “feminist” is appropriate to describe the thoughts and actions of women in other times and places is not an easy one (Burton 1992, Offen 1988, Riley 1990). If “feminism” has changed substan- tially in the past one hundred years, so too has our understanding of what con- stitutes gender; thus, different forms of feminism have produced different un- derstandings of gender, where gender itself cannot be separated from the cate- gories of race, class, or sexual identity that determine it.
Gender is today the site of considerable cross-disciplinary and transnational crisis. As Rosa Bradiotti has noted, “the sex/gender distinction, which is one of the pillars on which English-speaking feminist theory is built, makes neither epistemological nor political sense in many non-English, western-European contexts, where the notions of ‘sexuality’ and ‘sexual difference’ are used in- stead” (Bradiotti & Butler 1994, p. 38).
For some theorists, gender itself is a sociologism that reifies the social rela- tions that are seen to produce it by failing to account for how the terms mascu- line and feminine are founded in language prior to any given social formation.
The focus on sex difference, by contrast, examines how masculine and femi- nine are constituted differentially, insisting that “this differential is nondialec- tical and asymmetrical in character,” where “recourse to a symbolic domain is by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from one in which those positionalities are established and which in turn set the pa- rameters for notions of the social” (Butler 1994, p. 18). In this view, gender is seen less as a structure of fixed relations than as a process of structuring sub- jectivities. While both gender and sexuality can be seen as the cultural con- struction of “sex,” neither of which can exist before representation, the major challenge to gender as an analytic concept has come from Foucauldians who have argued that sex is not “the ground upon which culture elaborates gender.” Gender is rather the “discursive origin of sex” (Morris 1995, p. 568–69); hence The sociologistic account of gender tends to assume that a core gender iden- tity is produced as an effect of social construction, requiring that women not only see themselves as a biological sex but as a social grouping with which they must identify. Postmodern thinkers, queer theorists, and feminists of color have led the way in advancing sexuality as both counter-paradigm and critique of “gender essentialism.” As Biddy Martin (1994, p. 105) succinctly To the extent that gender is assumed to construct the ultimate ground of women’s experience, it has in much feminist work, come to colonize every aspect of experience, psychological and social, as the ultimate root and ex- planation of that experience, consigning us, once again, to the very terms that we sought to exceed, expand or redefine. When an uncritical assumption of the category ‘woman’ becomes the ‘subject of feminism,’ then gender poli- tics takes the form of…the injunction to identify with/as women.
Thus, the assumption that gender comprises the core of all women’s experi- ences produces a unified subject of identification, the need to identify In this review essay, I attempt to provide an account of how gender has come to signify “woman,” that is, a set of social relations that produces woman as a universal category transcending difference. I explore the linked questions of how women are figured as subjects, and what notions of the subject underlie the production of feminist ethnography to explain how a subject of identifica- tion is produced by particular understandings of gender at distinct historical mo- ments. Though gender first emerged as a descriptive category for women, ra- cial and class formations have at different historical moments worked against gender identification, that is, the emergence of “woman” as a universal cate- gory. I thus ask how a feminist ethnography that displaces gender from its cen- ter might engage strategies of disidentification rather than identification.
Since anthropology was probably the discipline that contributed most to the North American (or sociologistic) account of gender, I think it is valuable to trace its operation in the feminist ethnography that produces it as an analytical by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
object. Working from the critique of gender essentialism, I argue that feminist Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from ethnography can be defined as ethnography that foregrounds the question of social inequality vis-à-vis the lives of men, women, and children. This ap- proach to the literature widens the subject of feminist ethnography, but the looseness of definition is important. Although much feminist anthropology has presumed that women were its subjects, and this review focuses largely upon the works of women anthropologists writing about other women, I sug- gest at the close of this review that a broader conception of the relationship of feminist theory to social movements means that women should not be seen as sole subjects, authors, or audiences of feminist ethnography. Various forms of critical ethnography might thus productively be read as feminist ethnography.
As a means of gauging the historical production of feminist ethnographic texts, I propose to examine four time periods: 1880–1920, 1920–1960, 1960– 1980, and 1980–1996. These periods should be considered rough approxima- tions, not absolute chronological markers. I suggest that we use these time pe- riods to think of gender less in terms of a progressive teleology than in terms of cycles, where it is important to note disjunctures or doubled usages of the term.
In locating this analysis as part of an ongoing retelling of the history of femi- nism(s) in the United States,1 I want to emphasize the decisive role anthropol- ogy has played in shaping debates about gender in the United States. While some authors have attempted to understand how epistemologies such as feminist em- piricism, standpoint theory, or postmodernism have informed feminist re- search (Cole & Phillips 1995) and others have concentrated on the ways that feminism has been delineated by the terms of classical political theory—liberal, radical, cultural, Marxist, or socialist (Jaggar 1988)—these categorizations are limited for understanding how anthropology as a discipline has influenced the course of feminism in this country, and how feminism has, in turn, defined it- self as a movement within the limits of US history (Cott 1987, Giddens 1984).
Three paradigmatic markers have been articulated by US feminists for un- derstanding the history of feminism(s) in this country: “first wave” or suffra- gist feminism, second wave, and third wave feminism. Nancy Cott’s (1987) re- cent work holds that “feminism” did not emerge as a term of US political dis- course until after 1910. What she calls the nineteenth-century “woman move- ment” comprised various suffrage, temperance, socialist, abolitionist, and so- cial reform organizations. Phillippa Levine’s (1987) distinction between Vic- torian and modern feminism, however, actually suggests that both forms are constitutive of the first wave period. Thus the first period of review, 1880–1920, roughly corresponds to the Progressive Era and marks the transi- tion from Victorian to modern feminism, incorporating what Cott calls the first major phase of mass feminist mobilization from 1912–1919.2 The second peri- od of review, 1920–1960, while corresponding to a disaggregation of the by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
women’s movement (Cott 1987), also saw feminist work marked by modernist Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from ideas and experimentation. The third period, 1960–1980, marks the onset of second wave feminism; alternately attributed to the publication of Betty 11This poses disjunction for the texts authored by non-US anthropologists discussed in this review (see Lutkehaus 1986), but other histories of feminist ethnography may yet be written.
22Dates for the Progressive Era are variable. I use 1920 as an endmarker because it coincides with Warren Harding’s campaign for a “return to normalcy” and with what Cott terms the end of the suffrage movement and emergence of modern feminism.
Friedan’s (1963) Feminine Mystique or to the influence of civil rights and the New Left movements (Evans 1979, Giddens 1984, King 1988), it is cotermi- nous with a second wave of mass feminist politics between 1967 and 1974.
The term “third wave feminism” is linked to the contemporary period begin- ning in 1980s and is still very much in contention. Some have traced its emer- gence to the critique by queer theorists and women of color of second wave feminism’s tendency to generalize from a white, heterosexual, middle-class subject position, for again, while second wave feminism borrowed from the civil rights model, it failed to deal practically or theoretically with questions of class, sexual identity, homophobia, race, and racism within the movement (see Alarcon 1991; Combahee River Collective 1982; hooks 1984; Lorde 1984; Mohanty 1987; Moraga & Anzaldúa 1981; Sandoval 1990, 1991).
These paradigmatic markers, while they might be much refined or jetti- soned altogether, are useful for understanding broad shifts in the theorization of feminist politics. We might then see the shift from first to second wave femi- nism as embodying the transition from an understanding of gender as a largely empirical category designating women, to an emerging form of social critique linked both to theorization of a “sex/gender” system and the development of gender “standpoint theory,” the notion that women share a point of view de- spite cultural or class differences. I am particularly interested here in how nineteenth-century interest in the “woman question” was transformed by femi- nist ethnography of the second period into a “woman’s point of view,” much before the development of standpoint theory in the 1970s and 1980s. The shift from second wave feminism to third wave feminism can be seen in the emerg- ing critique of the sex/gender system, and a shift away from a unified subject of consciousness in gender standpoint theory, to what has been called theories of multiple consciousness or positioning (Alarcon 1989, 1991; Anzaldúa 1987, 1991; Haraway 1988; Jones 1996a,b; Sandoval 1991).
A major theme of the first two periods was contesting stereotypes of women, despite the emphasis on cultural or racial difference prohibiting any form of identification between women. With the development of feminist standpoint theory in the 1970s and 1980s, however, gender identification or by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
gender essentialism worked to subordinate differences of race, class, or sexual Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from orientation (Harris 1990, Sandoval 1991, Spelman 1988, Trinh 1987). The third and fourth periods have been most marked both by the desire of feminist ethnographers to identify with their subjects as “women” and a challenge to re- center difference through textual strategies of “disidentification.” If gender identification obscures difference and the workings of power, gender disiden- tification might expose difference and the operation of power, as part of the “rearticulation of democratic contestation” (Butler 1993, p. 4). I thus distin- guish between moments of gender identification (women like “us”) from mo- ments of gender difference or disidentification (women unlike “us”) vis-à-vis racial, sexual, or class positioning.
I argue that the writing of Victorian women anthropologists on Native American gender roles during the first period fomented central contradic- tions within the dominant evolutionary paradigm, which led to its demise. It was Elsie Clews Parsons who first foregrounded patriarchy to examine sexual inequality during the Progressive Era, and Margaret Mead who developed a distinction between sex and gender in the second period. Gayle Rubin (1975) proposed the idea of a “sex-gender” system by the mid-1970s, but in the fourth period, dual critiques of the sex/gender system and “gender essentialism” are Although Parsons initially saw gender as an empirical category that could be documented by examining how women were treated in different societies, she did eventually develop an understanding of the cultural construction of gender. For this reason, she was one of the first feminists to argue that patriar- chy was a damaging universal, not the particular evolutionary achievement of Western civilization. Second wave feminists like Robin Morgan, who pro- pounded the universality of patriarchy or sexual asymmetry, were later cri- tiqued by third wave feminists for ignoring that women occupied different structural positions within patriarchy depending upon group membership, or might even be subjected to multiple, interlocking patriarchies. If second wave feminists saw women as fundamentally equal in their subordination, third wave feminists insist on the inequality of women’s subordination based upon the particular location of different communities in racial/class formations or The historical perspective of this review puts it at odds with recent readings of feminist ethnography that locate the emergence of feminism in the disci- pline exclusively in the 1970s. This is surprising given that feminist scholars who began work in this period have already moved away from such readings (see Lamphere 1989). Nor do I believe that posing the question of a distinctly feminist ethnography presupposes an unhealthy separation of ethnography from the discipline of anthropology. To the extent that the genre of ethnogra- by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
phy has been appropriated for other purposes and by feminists in other disci- Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from plines (Chabram 1990, Cvetkovich 1995, Frankenberg 1993, Jones 1996a,b, Newton 1993, Patai 1988, Smith & Watson 1996, Stacey 1990, Toruellas et al 1991), such a move seems to me both healthy and invigorating, not the orphan of a fraught exchange between feminist theorists and anthropologists (Gordon 1995, p. 431). In this review, I use the concepts of feminist theory to analyze the production of ethnographies about women.
In so doing, I want to move away from the question of “experimental- ism”—it is clear to me that a variety of textual forms (diary, memoir, review, life history, autobiography, travelogue) have existed throughout the history of anthropological production (Behar & Gordon 1995, Tedlock 1991). My focus is thus less on “new writing” than on renewed strategies for reading. In calling for sustained attention to the works of earlier women anthropologists, then, my argument is not that feminist anthropologists of the 1970s ignored earlier work. Rather, they read it in particular ways, largely to shed light on the ques- tion of universal sexual asymmetry, less for attention to the conception of gen- der being advanced, or for information about self-reflexive styles of writing.
My point is not that one set of readings is mistaken, only that different histori- cal moments engender different strategies of reading. In attempting to track the intertextuality of feminist ethnography, I engage and assess those strategies of reading to understand the continuities and breaks in its production. Many other works might have been considered in this review; my objective is not to restrict what counts as “feminist ethnography” but to suggest parameters to aid in un- derstanding what it has been and might yet become.
Since the focus of this review is upon ethnography, I review only interdisci- plinary writing or work in sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and folklore. Considerable feminist work also exists in the other subdisci- plines, and I refer interested readers to those accounts (Conkey & Williams 1991, Liebowitz 1975, Zihlman 1985). Similarly, a number of reviews have periodically assessed the status of feminist scholarship in linguistic anthropol- ogy (Borker 1984, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992, Gal 1991), folklore (Ro- san & de Caro Jordan 1986), life history (Geiger 1986), ethnohistory (Strong 1996), and sociocultural anthropology (Atkinson 1982, Lamphere 1977, Morris 1995, Mukhopadhyay & Higgins 1988, Quinn 1977, Rapp 1979, Rogers 1978, Weston 1993), in addition to introductions for a number of recent collections (di Leonardo 1991, Ortner 1981, Rapp 1975, Rosaldo & Lamphere 1974).
I. 1880–1920: The Emergence of Gender as an Anthropological Category of Analysis3When Edward Tylor addressed the Anthropological Society of Washington in by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
1884, he held that, “the man of the house, though he can do a great deal, cannot Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from do it all. If his wife sympathizes with his work, and is able to do it, really half the work of investigation seems to me to fall to her, so much is to be learned through the women of the tribe, which the men will not readily disclose.” Speaking in particular of Matilda Cox Stevenson’s collaboration with her hus- band, Tylor concluded that it was a lesson not to “warn the ladies off from their proceedings, but rather to avail themselves thankfully of their help” (in Parezo 33For a fuller account of the writings of women anthropologists in this period, see Visweswaran 1993). Elsie Clews Parsons (1906) also argued that women could aid ethnol- ogy because a “woman student would have many opportunities for observing the life of women that male ethnographers have lacked” (p. 198). This suggests that early women ethnographers charged with the collection of information on women understood gender as largely an empirical or descriptive category.
Still, while Alice Fletcher was interested in the study of Native American women, “hoping to add to the historical solution of the ‘woman question,’” (Mark 1980, p. 67), only she, Cox Stevenson, and Parsons actually produced extensive ethnographic information about women and children, though their anthropology was not limited to this realm.
Victorian notions of sexual difference held that men and women were charac- terized by their biology, which in turn determined their social roles (Levine 1987, p. 129). This inseparability of sex from gender meant that the term “woman” itself was taken for granted rather than seen as something to be explained throughout much of the nineteenth century. But Erminnie Platt Smith’s writing on the Iroquois, Fletcher’s work on the Omaha, and Cox Stevenson’s on the Zuni showed that women in “primitive” societies led lives not of degradation but of honor and respect. Such accounts challenged the Victorian evolutionary idea that Western women occupied the highest place of honor among the range of world cultures and posed a “woman question” requiring explanation. The central contradiction of Victorian evolutionism can therefore be simply stated: If the status of women was seen to be the measure of a civilization, why was it that white women were denied the vote, rights to property, and independence in a range of social activities, when “primitive” Native American women might have rights to property, a say in ritual practice, and considerable social freedom? Still, it would not be quite accurate to say that the “woman question” sun- dered the logic of Victorian evolutionism. Although it had become increas- ingly difficult for Victorian evolutionary theory to explain away the results of emerging field-based ethnology on matrilineal societies (Cox Stevenson 1894, 1904; Fee 1975; Fletcher 1899), and this gender strain certainly contributed to its demise, high Victorianism held that while women were unequal, they were not inferior, cloaking their subordination in the glories of innate spirituality or by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from maternal duty. In suggesting that early women anthropologists pointed to the contradiction between lowly “independent” women and highly positioned “dependent” women, then, it must be remembered that, apart from Parsons, they were not only unable to break with the conventions of Victorian society, but were to a large extent enabled by its gender ideology. Indeed, the following statements are virtually all these anthropologists have to say about the “woman question” in a rather large body of work.
Cox Stevenson (1904) wrote that “The domestic life of the Zunis might well serve as an example for the civilized world” (p. 293), and Parsons (1916) was to proclaim, “Few woman are institutionally as independent as Pueblo Indian women…particularly [ ] Zuni women (who) marry and divorce more or less at pleasure. They own their houses and their gardens. Their offspring are reck- oned of their clan. Their husbands come to live with them in their family group” (p. 44). Fletcher (1883) also acknowledged that “civilization” for the Indian woman was not without its drawbacks. “Their status is one of Independ- ence in many ways, particularly as to property. Once when our laws respecting married women were being explained to them, an Indian matron exclaimed, ‘I’m glad I’m not a white woman!’” (p. 314). In a later article, “The Indian Woman and Her Problems,” Fletcher (1899, p. 174) expanded: Under the old tribal regime, woman’s industries were essential to the very life of the people, and their value was publicly recognized. While she suf- fered many hardships and labored early and late, her work was exalted cere- monially and she had a part in tribal functions. Her influence in the growth and development of tribal government, tribal ceremonies, and tribal power shows that her position had always been one of honor rather than one of slav- Even as Fletcher was concerned to argue against stereotypes of Native Ameri- can women, the reverse portrait became a foil against which to judge the prog- ress of white women, an idealized symbol of what Victorian women did not yet In arguing for their own independence then, early women anthropologists did not argue for an end to the process that subjugated Native American women as women. In fact, the perceived “independence” of Native American women in spite of forced removal and genocide, may have worked as an ideo- logical shield in much the same way that white women were not seen to be sub- jugated as women because they were white. Just at the moment the idea of gen- der difference—that is, the different social roles occupied by women in native and white cultures—might have challenged racial hierarchy, Parsons’s (1916) insistence that, “The main objective of feminism in fact, may be defeminisa- tion, the declassification of women as women, the recognition of women as hu- man beings or personalities” (p. 54) worked to erase racial difference and ine- by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from qualities between women altogether. In Parsons’s writing, such a paradoxical declassification of women and subordination of difference actually shapes the emergence in her work of women as a universal category. This double move- ment is most present in her early writings which she characterized as “propa- ganda by the ethnographic method,” but actually predate her entry into empiri- cal anthropology around 1915 (see Deacon 1997, Lamphere 1989).
Much has been written of Parsons’s contribution to the cultural construc- tion of gender and her polyphonic dispersed style of writing (Babcock 1992, Deacon 1997). She has been credited with establishing an interest in “mother- ing as form and institution,” as well as in the cross-cultural construction of sexuality through her work on the Zuni La’mana, though this designation more properly belongs to Matilda Cox Stevenson, whose descriptions of childbirth are written as unfolding social dramas,4 and whose relationship with We’wha, Zuni “man/woman” is catalogued with affection and respect (see also Parezo 1993). Still, an understanding of how gender distinctions reflect institutional social inequality emerges more fully in Parsons’s popular writings than in her Parsons’s (1906) first major work, “An Ethnographical and Historical Out- line of the Family,” is usually forgiven its apparent evolutionism and is more often remembered for her controversial advocacy of trial marriage, whereas her problematic advocacy of birth control for classes “the least culturally de- veloped, and therefore the least self-controlled,” (p. 351) has been overlooked.
As a solution to reducing the cost to the state of such criminal reproduction by its “diseased or vicious subjects,” Parsons had advocated use of Galton’s “eugenics certificates” (p. 344).
By 1909, however, Parsons’s views of class difference seem to have been submerged in ethnographic universals about women’s condition. She held that “royal ladies of the African west coast” and the queens of medieval Europe fought similar battles to establish their independence: “All these queens, nuns, and femmes de joie were the celibate or grass widow pioneers of woman’s rights, the ancestresses of the modern emancipated woman” (1909, p. 758).
Four years later, in The Old-Fashioned Woman, Parsons was again arguing that the differences between Western society and other societies were not pro- nounced where women were concerned (1913, p. 24): “Coming-out” is a custom not peculiar to civilization. Our debutantes are apt to be older, to be sure, than those elsewhere. Instead of a year or two “abroad” or in a “finishing school,” savage girls usually spend but a few weeks or months in a lonely hut or in a bed or in a hammock or cage in a cor- ner of the house or on the roof. But once “out,” a debutante’s life is every- where much the same. Everywhere at this time particular attention is paid to by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
While Parsons here articulates a form of gender identification by celebrating a Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from practice common to diverse groups of women, in the same moment she puts under erasure the class differences of industrial society, and the very presence of working women who were not attending debutante balls but subject to In her 1916 work, Social Rule, however, such universals had more negative connotations, for “[f]rom the domination of her family (a woman) passes under 44See her descriptions of childbirth among the Sia (1894, pp. 132–43) and Zuni (1904, pp.
the domination of her husband and, perhaps in addition, of his family” (p. 44).
Thus, at the same moment Parsons established the relative high status and auton- omy of women in “primitive” cultures, her move to equalize sources of oppres- sion between diverse groups of women makes them all subjects of the same pa- triarchy, effacing difference in the process. Parsons’s assertion that it was patri- archal social organization that oppresses women constitutes the major break with the dominant strain of evolutionist theory that held that patriarchy was the form of civilized society (Fee 1975). The deployment of cultural difference to establish a universalized patriarchy is perhaps the central contribution and para- dox of Parsons’s ethnologically informed feminism, one which has had a trou- bled history in “second-wave” Anglo-American feminism, and the ideas of uni- versal sexual asymmetry that informed the feminist anthropology of the 1970s and 1980s (cf. di Leonardo 1991, Lamphere 1989, Rapp 1975, Rosaldo 1980).
Victorian women anthropologists like Fletcher and Cox Stevenson were unable to sunder the notion that sex and gender were one and the same (though their work posed the question of separating the two). Parsons, however, in rec- ognizing the variety of roles women played throughout histories and cultures, came close to suggesting, as Margaret Mead later did, that different sex roles might be enabled by different cultures. Parsons was thus a transitional figure, one who presaged Mead’s interventions, which clearly separated sex from gender by developing a distinction between sex and sex temperament.
II. 1920–1960: Ethnographies of Race, Ethnographies of Women, and the Sex/Gender DistinctionMargaret Mead was possibly not the first social scientist to develop a distinc- tion between biological sex and sociologically distinct gender roles, but she was certainly the first to use ethnography to do so. Her first work, Coming of Age in Samoa, investigated whether “the process of growth by which the girl baby becomes a grown woman,” or “the sudden and conspicuous bodily changes which take place at puberty” was accompanied by an inevitable period of mental and emotional distress for the growing girl” (1928, p. 196). Mead’s answer was, of course, “no.” Coming of age in Samoa had none of the fraught by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from connotations it had in the United States (p. 197).5 However, it was not until her comparative work in Sex and Temperament in Three Societies that she distinguished between sex and sex temperament in a now famous formulation (1935, p. 280): “many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.” Significantly, Mead’s early formulation of 55This theme was explored again in her next major work (1930), Growing Up in New Guinea. gender as sex temperament was often deployed by feminist ethnographers of this period to emphasize cultural or racial difference, working against any Still, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa inaugurated a period of textual pro- duction during the late 1930s to late 1940s in which “ethnographies of women,” that is, texts with women as their sole or main subject, were written through the medium of the life history, “autobiography,” (Landes 1971; Reichard 1934, 1939; Underhill 1979) or travel narrative (Hurston 1935, 1938; Landes 1947).
Writers in this period oscillated between the empiricist assumptions of Tylor and Parsons (studying women for a more complete picture of the society) and vindicationist approaches that sought to refute cultural or gender stereotypes.
Early feminist ethnography that relied upon life history method was con- cerned to establish the simultaneous uniqueness and typicality of the women being written about. Ruth Landes’s (1971) Ojibwa Woman consists of stories that Maggie Wilson narrated to her daughter about other women in the com- munity. Although Landes describes Maggie’s achievements as “boldly ven- turesome and resourceful,” “[o]nly fragments of Maggie’s life story appear in the present volume” though “[h]er major attitudes are exposed in her choice of tales…and in her turns of phrase” (p. viii). While Maggie is obviously a pow- erful personality and a “gifted woman,” Landes struggles to justify the absence of her authorial presence by noting contradictorily, “A preliterate society masks its personalities with anonymity” (p. viii).
The insistence on making a woman both unique and typical of her culture is also found in Ruth Underhill’s work. For her, “a Papago woman’s history is in- teresting in itself, because, in this culture, there exists strongly the fear of woman’s impurity with all its consequent social adjustments” (1979, p. 33). In choosing Chona as a subject, Underhill struggled to see her as typical: “She is not the aberrant type which so frequently attracts the attention of the White in- vestigator. She accepted her culture completely, and one reason for choosing her was that she had come in contact with so many of its important phases.” Still, Chona was not the “ideal Papago female type, for she was inclined to be independent and executive…” (1979, p. 34).
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Autobiography, biography, and life history were often conflated to erase Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from the narratorial presence of the white woman anthropologist, while her author- ship was paradoxically underscored. Some saw themselves as neither editors nor elicitors of the life stories gathered (Landes 1971); others were more cog- nizant of their role in shaping the narrative. In the introduction to Autobiogra- phy of a Papago Woman, Ruth Underhill (1979) calls it a “memory picture,” (p. 10) underscoring her role as editor of Chona’s narrative, noting that her story “appears in these pages, brief and concise…” though “the writing of that simple story took three years” (p. 27). Thus, “in presenting an Indian autobiog- raphy, there still remain important questions of technique. Indian narrative style involves a repetition and a dwelling on unimportant details which con- fuse the White reader and make it hard for him to follow the story” (p. 3).
The devices of fiction were also used to construct the generalized subjects of life history. Gladys Reichard (1939) began Dezba: Woman of the Desert by noting that “Dezba is one of the 45,000 or 48,000 Navajo Indians who inhabit a vast territory from Northeastern Arizona and NorthWestern New Mexico,” yet “In depicting the character of the story I have used no incidents or details which are not true. Nevertheless…the description of the actors, the relation- ship they bear to the author, and the episodes in which they appear are all fic- tional. I know no Navajo exactly like anyone here portrayed” (p. vi).
Others reflected specifically on the relationship of anthropological narra- tive to novelistic fiction. When Mead likened the techniques of the fieldworker to that of the novelist (cited in Lutkehaus 1995, p. 189), Kaberrry (1939) con- curred that “The anthropologist needs the eye of a novelist…” (pp. 38–39).
“Ethnographies of women,” then, reveal considerable forethought and reflex- ivity about the conditions of textual production, often deliberately using “fic- tion” as a strategic narrative device to relay a “woman’s point of view.” In these texts, however, the function of a “woman’s point of view” is to specify cultural difference and is not a point of identification between author, subject, At the time of its publication, Phyllis Kaberry’s (1939) Aboriginal Woman was heralded for of its contribution “to our knowledge of the life of Aboriginal women” and credited with disproving the “widespread idea that Aboriginal women are mere drudges, passing a life of monotony and being shamefully ill- treated by their husbands” (p. xxii). Like Fletcher before her, Kaberry de- ployed anthropology to debunk stereotype, revealing the social construction of gender, for the Aboriginal woman had to be envisaged “as an active social per- sonality: as a human being with all the wants, desires and needs that flesh is heir to” (p. 9). Like Mead, Kaberry was also adept at showing how culture and environment shape different notions of womanhood (p. 10): by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
The country for the aboriginal woman is not so much freehold or leasehold Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from property, but one she regards as her own because she has inherited the right to live and forage for food within its boundaries. In her patriotism, she is ready to insist that there is an abundance of game, fish, and yams, whether there is or not. To the white woman…the country is one of plains and arid hills. It seems incredible to her that the native woman can forage day, after day, wandering apparently at random in the hope of finding a few tubers.
Kaberry’s perception of aboriginal women’s “patriotism” in a year of drought, and awareness of her own racialization, is perhaps due to the heightened con- text of World War II. As racial identities were reflected through gender dis- tinctions, so too were gender distinctions reflected through race relations.
Thus the textual production of this era spanning the Depression to the end of World War II was also marked by “ethnographies of race” which more deliber- ately deployed a “woman’s viewpoint” to foreground race relations.6 Many works, including Zora Neale Hurston’s (1938) Tell My Horse, which explores cross-cultural experiences of womanhood in the United States and Caribbean, or Ella Deloria’s (1988) Waterlily, a novel about coming to womanhood in Da- kota Sioux society, reveal the use of a form of gender standpoint to explore the impact of race upon the authors and those they write about, but disturb the co- herence of identification between author, subject, and reader by generating multiple positionings in their texts. Other works of this period, however, do not necessarily make women the sole subjects of analysis. Hurston’s (1935) Mules and Men and Landes’s (1947) City of Women, in particular, combine textual modes that enable a movement from race relations in the American South (Eatonville, Fisk Univer- sity) to the analysis of race relations in Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean communities. Despite Landes’s mistaken claim that racial problems in Brazil did not exist (1947, p. xxxvi), City of Women details her own negotiation of pa- triarchal racial ideologies in the United States and Brazil.
Hortense Powdermaker’s (1939) After Freedom similarly describes her own mediating position in race relations of the US south, writing of the diffi- culty of working in a region of marked hostility between whites and blacks.
Thus, Powdermaker (1939) is forced to account for the “woman’s view” re- In the community studied, it is almost out of the question for a white woman to interview Negro men. Accordingly, the colored informants were mainly women. Since, however, the Negro family in Cottonville is so largely matri- archal, and since it would have been difficult in any situation for one person to get material of equal intimacy from members of both sexes, this was not such a serious handicap. Something of the male point of view was revealed by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
While Powdermaker relied upon unexamined stereotypes of the “Negro fam- Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from ily,” her writing, along with work by Landes, Hurston, Deloria, and others points to how gender distinctions are inseparable from the patriarchal race re- 66These texts include works by sociologists working in the “Caste School of Racial Relations”: John Dollard’s (1937) Caste and Class in a Southern Town, BG Gallaghers’s (1938) American Caste and the Negro College, and works by anthropologists, such as Davis & Gardner’s (1941) Deep South, Melville Herskovits’s (1941) Myth of the Negro Past, and St. Clair Drake & Horace Cayton’s (1945) Black Metropolis. Discussion of patriarchy sometimes worked to displace analysis of racial conflict in feminist ethnography of this period, however. Gladys Reichard’s (1934) Spider Woman is a first person account of her own instruction in weav- ing over a period of four summers, but it is also staged as a series of encounters with Navajo patriarchy. Navajo men appear in her narrative as those who sup- port her efforts to weave (especially important, since it is they who do the hard labor for setting up the looms) or those who challenge it (p. 96). Unfortunately, Reichard displays an inability to comprehend that what is for her an aesthetic pleasure or summer pastime is labor that must ultimately receive economic re- muneration. When one man demands that Reichard pay his wife a large sum of money for teaching her to weave because she might in turn “teach the white women to weave so that Navajo women won’t be able to earn money any- more,” (p. 216) Reichard is unable to locate herself as part of a larger, white- dominated political economy, though she recognizes that the Navajo “have been exploited by whites for years” and are “on the defensive.” Her dismissal of demands for correct payment is thus justified by what she sees as male domination, “corroborated by white observers and other Navajo”—that “Kinni’s-Son is supported largely by the industry of his women, and he wants to be supported as well as possible” (pp. 216–17).
Despite both Reichard’s and Parsons’s identification with and adoption of the Spiderwoman role in Native American teachings (Weigle 1982), racial and class privilege remains unmarked in their texts. This suggests that the feminist ethnography of this period evokes a “woman’s point of view” not as a subject of identification that activates woman as a universal category, but as the filter through which cultural and racial difference is both apprehended and ab- stracted from unequal relations of power.
III. 1960–1980: Sex/Gender Systems and Universals of Sex OppressionEthnographies that sought to understand the structural symbolic position of women in society began to appear in the late 1950s (Berndt 1950, Richards by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
1956) and continued into the 1970s and 1980s (Goodale 1971, Strathern 1972, Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from Weiner 1976). In 1971, however, courses on the anthropology of women were taught for the first time at Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. These courses, and others like them, properly marked the inauguration of US feminist anthropology and the books that emerged from them: Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere’s (1974) Women, Culture and Society, Rayna Rapp’s (1975) Toward an Anthro- pology of Women, and M Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies’s (1975) Female Much has already been written about the first two collections, for which Robin Morgan’s (1970) Sisterhood is Powerful was probably a motivating, if unacknowledged force. And while second wave feminism was influenced by civil rights and other movements for racial equality (Evans 1979, Giddens 1984, King 1988), the analogy of sex oppression to race oppression was the unstated intellectual ground for these collections, allowing the submergence of racial and cultural difference in woman as a universal category.7 In reexamin- ing their moment of production, I want to suggest new ways of understanding the emergence and intertextuality of feminist anthropology. If it is true that the expository review was one of the first textual forms employed by this genera- tion of feminist anthropologists (Gordon 1995), what was its relationship to ethnographic writing of this period? I argue that the first manifesto-like re- views can be read in a kind of call and response mode. In response to the call, “Are women universally the second sex?” feminist ethnographers answered Women, Culture and Society opened with an invocation from Simone de Beauvoir and then went on to debunk the theories of “matriarchy” used as ex- planations for “women’s past.” Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (1974) queried, “What then do anthropologists know about our heritage?” (p.
4) and concluded that since much of it was negative, “[b]y treating everywhere women’s lives as interesting and problematic, we hope to loosen the hold of stereotypes that have, unfortunately, shaped our own lives (p. 15).
Like some of the Victorian era women, second wave feminist anthropologists thought that understanding the lives of women in other cultures could help them make sense of their own (Rapp 1975, p. 11). In locating feminist work in the struggle against stereotypes, the authors of these collections placed them- selves in the vindicationist matriline of Fletcher, Nuttal, Hurston, Deloria, and Kaberry. Although recent reflections (Lamphere 1989) suggest that Margaret Mead was the feminist spirit behind the Rosaldo and Lamphere collection, nei- ther Woman, Culture and Society nor Toward an Anthropology of Women de- tail in any substantive way the contributions of Margaret Mead. That was actu- by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
ally left to Martin & Voorhies (1975), who dedicated Female of the Species Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from “To Margaret Mead: A continuing pioneer in the anthropological study of sex and gender.” Martin & Voorhies’s notion of “gender status” was indebted to Mead’s work in Sex and Temperament and to her later notion of “sex careers” (p. 95). For them, the “biological and cultural aspects of sex” were distin- guished by “features known to have a genetic basis as a person’s physical sex 77Many of the Engels-influenced writers of the period used the analogy of “sex oppression” to class oppression, recalling Parsons’s use of the term “sex class,” but the effect was again to produce “woman” as a universal category.
or phenotypic sex” from “those features that appear to have their foundation in cultural instruction, and that reflect…a person’s social sex or gender” (p. 3).
Mead was still alive at the time these works were produced; her controver- sial public persona, and perhaps her own apparent disavowal of feminism, made her a difficult figure for 1970s feminists to claim.8 Betty Friedan’s sec- ond wave text, The Feminine Mystique, also devoted an entire chapter to a cri- tique of Mead’s ideas.9 Friedan (1963) argued that while the “feminine mys- tique might have taken from Margaret Mead her vision of the infinite variety of sexual patterns and the enormous plasticity of human nature, a vision based on the differences of sex and temperament she found in three primitive societies” (p. 136), what emerged from Mead’s work was “a glorification of women in the female role—as defined by their sexual biological function” (p. 137).
By 1975, it was Gayle Rubin who defined the sex/gender system (again without recourse to Mead) as “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied” (1975, p. 159). According to her, “Every society…has a sex/gender system—a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, so- cial intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner” (1975, p. 165). It is this notion of a sex/gender system that permeates the ethnographic production Although I cannot discuss the full range of texts that use some notion of a sex/gender system, it is important to note that not all of them produce a coher- ent subject of identification. I have elsewhere (Visweswaran 1994) written that second wave feminist ethnographies such as Hortense Powdermaker’s (1966) Stranger and Friend, Laura Bohannon’s (1966) Return to Laughter, Elizabeth Fernea’s (1969) Guests of the Sheikh, or Jean Briggs’s (1970) Never in Anger often report the authors’ assignment to the world of women, and moments of disaffection or disidentification following from the authors’ inability to iden- tify with their subjects to create a unified “woman’s point of view.” This group of texts powerfully suggests disjunction and discontinuity rather than progres- sive teleology in the historical elaboration of gender within the discipline. By by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
contrast, most authors throughout the 1980s and 1990s enact strategies of iden- Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from tification with their subjects (Abu-Lughod 1987, 1993; Behar 1993; Bell 1993; 88For example, in the introduction to Sex and Temperament, Mead (1935) pronounced, “This study is not…a treatise on the rights of women, nor an inquiry into the basis of feminism” (p. viii). Her legacy is still contested (Foerstel & Gilliam 1992) and has only recently been reclaimed, but more for her contributions to writing (Behar & Gordon 1995, Lutkehaus 1995, Marcus & Fisher 1986, Reinharz 1991) than as the originator of the sex/gender distinction in anthropology.
99See Chapter 6, “The Functional Freeze, The Feminine Protest and Margaret Mead.” In noting this contrast, I want briefly to explore how feminist ethnographers of differing periods read, and reread each other’s work to produce ethno- graphic sites of intertextuality and contestation. I am particularly interested in Eleanor Leacock’s (1978) critique of Landes’s (1971) work and Diane Bell’s (1993) engagement with Phyllis Kaberry’s (1939) work in her 1983 book Leacock’s (1978) critique of Ruth Landes’s work is found in her classic ar- ticle “Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society: Implications for Social Evolu- tion.” Leacock presents Landes’s work as an example of “the extent to which data can be skewed by a nonhistorical approach…based on (ethnocentric) as- sumptions about public-prestigious males versus private-deferent females” (p.
251). Leacock accuses Landes of providing two contradictory descriptions of women in Ojibwa society: “In one, women are extremely self-sufficient and independent and much more versatile than men.” “By contrast, the second de- scription deals with a hunting society in which women are ‘inferior’ and lack ‘distinct training,’ in which the generalization is made that ‘any man is intrinsi- cally and vastly superior to any woman…” (p. 251).
Leacock held that if women were excluded from public decision-making (as Rosaldo and Lamphere argued) it was the result of a particular sex-gender system produced by capitalist development. The failure to identify a particular public/private dichotomy as the lens of our own sex/gender system operating through capitalism amounted, for Leacock, to a projection of false ideological It is, however, possible to see Landes’s descriptions of Ojibwa life as a richly woven account that conveys the complexity of women’s social position- ing and a productive inability to say decisively whether they are wholly inde- pendent or subordinate. I suggest that it is not the accounts that are faulty but the form of a question that asked feminists to decide conclusively one way or Diane Bell, in contrast to Leacock, located herself in a line of vindicationist scholarship on aboriginal women which included Phyllis Kaberry (1939), Catherine Berndt (1950), and Jane Goodale (1971). Based on fieldwork con- by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from ducted between 1976 and 1982, Daughters of the Dreaming is simultaneously a first-person account of “learning to be a woman” in aboriginal society (Bell 1993, pp. 21, 28, 34–35) and an account of gender relations within it. Bell de- 10Such contradictory complexity also marks Ruth Underhill’s work. Remarking upon the differences between Underhill’s (1938) monograph Singing for Power, and her 1965 study, Red Man’s Religion, Martha Weigle (1982, pp. 172–73) notes that while Underhill’s first account of Papago menstrual taboos and beliefs positions women as fearful and dangerous sites of contamination, her later account reworked the same passages in dialogical form to conclude that women’s monthly social separation was a sign of sacred power.
scribes herself as “dedicated to learning a woman’s point of view” (p. 33). At various points, however, her own identification with aboriginal women is punctured by moments of unease: “It was as if I had been accepted because I was a white woman and the Warlpiri had learned not to argue with whites. I was a Nakamarra, a widow, a mother, but I was also a white woman. Maybe I was a little like the welfare people” (p. 27). This is one of the few places in the text where Bell’s gender identification with aboriginal women is undercut by a re- flection upon the structural position of power implied in her racial positioning.
Bell clearly sees her ethnography as a kind of response to the debates about universal sexual asymmetry, noting, “I have throughout this book avoided speaking of sexual equality or inequality because I believe these concepts dis- tort our understanding of male-female relationships in desert society” (p. 237).
However, while Bell explicitly aligned herself with Leacock’s position, her writing about aboriginal women was not reducible to it.11 Like Phyllis Kaberry before her, Bell sought to underline positive yet complex images of Aboriginal women. The feminist ethnographies that emerged in response to the debates on universal sexual asymmetry, then, were remarkable for their refusal to decide In the epilogue written 10 years after the initial publication of the book, Bell writes of her own process of identifying with the women she studied, explicitly aligning herself with the standpoint theory of Nancy Hartsock (1987) and San- dra Harding (1993). Bell’s recognition of the alliance of feminist ethnography with standpoint theory is important; a larger number of feminist ethnographies are produced by standpoint theory without their authors’ acknowledgment.
Standpoint perspectives rely upon a notion of the sex/gender system, which as- sumes women are all members of the same “sex” notwithstanding different gender identifications produced by culture, for to produce a “women’s stand- point,” which is shared by women regardless of culture, is to rely upon the only thing women share in common: biology (see Jagger 1988, p. 377).12 Standpoint theory, as Catherine O’Leary (1997) so cogently argues, univer- salizes the category of gender so that difference is subordinated to a unified subject of identification. As standpoint theory was formalized in the 1980s, it by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
was held that the feminist standpoint was founded “on the basis of the common Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from threads of female experience…” (Hartsock 1987). Despite the Marxist origin of much standpoint theory, it produces gender identification between feminist 11Nor was Marjorie Shostak’s (1981) Nisa limited to the debates about “egalitarian band societies,” though it is these questions that inform her fieldwork.
12 12Interestingly enough, Dorothy Smith’s (1987) early formulation of standpoint theory read Jean Brigg’s ethnography not for its ruptures and disaffections (Visweswaran 1994) but for evidence of a ethnographers and their subjects, erasing differences of race, class, or sexual Other forms of standpoint theory operate in field memoirs like Katherine Dunham’s (1994) Island Possessed, where negritude is advanced as an exis- tential ethnographic lens. Written in Senegal, some thirty-odd years after her first experiences in the field, it is a partial meditation of her own positioning in the scholarship on Haiti by Melville Herskovits and his students (p. 4): They were white and male these writers. Of my kind I was a first—a lone young woman easy to place in the clean-cut American dichotomy of color, harder to place in the complexity of Caribbean color classifications; a mu- latto when occasion called for, an in-between, or “griffon” actually, I sup- pose; most of the time an unacceptable, which I prefer to think of as “noir”—not exactly the color black, but the quality of belonging with or be- ing at ease with black people when in the hills or plains or anywhere, and scrambling through daily life along with them. Though the meaning of the word negritude has never been completely clear to me, here in the country of the conceiver of the concept, reflecting on my early years, I know I must have For Dunham, negritude is the standpoint that allows her to reflect upon her shifting racial position in US and Caribbean societies. The extent to which her understanding of negritude is essentialist, or only strategically so, entails a fuller discussion of racial vindicationism as a sociopolitical strategy against racism and must be balanced against her understanding of color and class dif- ference as central to the socially constructed character of race. Like Zora Neale Hurston, Dunham deploys the ethnographic medium to reflect on her gendered racial identities in the United States and Haiti, suggesting multiple subject po- sitionings or hyphenated consciousness. Further work might explore the extent to which black feminist standpoint theory (Collins 1990, hooks 1984, King 1988)—the notion of a “both/and orientation” derived from black women’s experiences as African-Americans and as women (Collins 1990, p. 29)—is useful for understanding the ethnographies of Hurston, Dunham, and others.
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IV. 1980–1996: Beyond the Sex/Gender Distinction: Critiques of Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from Gender EssentialismIn 1980, arguably the most influential essay for feminist anthropology, and for US feminist scholarship in general, was Michelle Rosaldo’s “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-Cultural Under- 13Important revisions to standpoint theory have been advanced by Patricia Hill Collins (1990) and Patricia Zavella (1995) on the question of race and racial identification; some theorists also propound the notion of multiple standpoints. These versions of standpoint theory broach formulations of multiple positioning and consciousness discussed in the next section.
standing.” Rosaldo (1980) began her review with a sympathetic critique of the popular feminist literature for its attempts to “catalog customs of the past in or- der to decide if womankind can claim through time, to have acquired or lost…power, self-esteem, autonomy and status” (p. 391). While Rosaldo in- sisted that “male dominance, though apparently universal, does not in actual behavioral terms, assume a universal content or universal shape” (p. 394), she held that “every social system uses the facts of biological sex to organize and explain the roles and opportunities men may enjoy, just as all known human social groups appeal to biologically based ties in the construction of familial groups and kinship bonds (p. 395) concluding that, “it would appear that cer- tain biological facts—women’s role in reproduction and, perhaps, male strength—have operated in a nonnecessary way to shape and reproduce male dominance” (p. 396). Rosaldo’s critique was thus bound by the same adher- ence to biology of which Friedan accused Margaret Mead.
Yet Rosaldo’s review attempted to address how the very argument for uni- versal sexual asymmetry might essentialize the category of “woman” (p. 401): To talk of women’s status is to think about a social world in ultimately di- chotomous terms, wherein “woman” is universally opposed to man in the same ways in all contexts. Thus, we tend repeatedly to contrast and stress pre- sumably given differences between women and men, instead of asking how such differences are themselves created by gender relations. In so doing, we find ourselves the victims of a conceptual tradition that discovers “essence” in the natural characteristics which distinguish us from men and then declares that women’s present lot derives from what “in essence” women are….
In attempting to stress that universal facts were not reducible to biology (p.
397), and in suggesting the nonnecessary ways in which biology was read into structures of domination, Rosaldo initiated a critique of gender essentialism but was ultimately unable to achieve it because of her insistence that “‘brute’ biological facts have everywhere been shaped by social logics” (p. 399). Posit- ing a direct relationship between biology and gender roles (however variously defined) runs counter to one of the central insights of queer theory, that biology by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
may not be determinative of sexuality or sexual identification.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from Judith Butler (1990) perhaps levels the critique of the sex/gender system the most succinctly:14 “this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.
It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of 14I do not want to imply that there is only one critique of the sex/gender distinction; several acknowledge and work from Rubin’s early distinctions (see de Lauretis 1987, Sedgewick 1990, sex, if sex itself is a gendered category” (p. 7). She concludes that “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or a ‘natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘predi- scursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (p. 7). It is worth noting that in this particular critique of the sex/gender system, sex and gender are once again seen to be indistinguishable, though in terms quite distinct from the Victorian era. In the Victorian era, biological sex was seen to entail particular social roles; in the current moment, sex is inseparable from gender because sex itself is seen to be a social category.15 Butler suggests that it is in performativity itself that gender operates, reem- bodied (or disembodied); as Mead first suggested, sexual identity can be lik- ened to putting on or taking off a set of clothes. Gender can be seen as some- thing people do rather than as a quality they possess, pushing the shift from gender as principle structuring social relations to forms of subjectivity a step farther. Rewriting de Beauvoir, we might say, “One is not born, one performs (or is performed as) a woman.” The metaphor, while useful, also has its limita- tions: Subjects do not always freely choose their performances; gender, race, and class distinctions may also be performed upon them, with devastating ef- A number of feminist ethnographies now focus on the emergence of gender in performance (Harrison 1990, Jones 1996a,b, Kapchan 1996, Kondo 1995, Steedly 1993, Stewart 1996, Tsing 1993); some like Nadia Serematakis (1991) also use a form of gender standpoint to understand the performance and poet- ics of particular speech genres such as the funeral lament, for “to examine death in Inner Mani is to look at Maniat society through female eyes” (p. 15).
Several have also turned to playwriting as a means of scripting ethno- graphic performances. Dorinne Kondo (1995) and Joni Jones (1996a,b) ex- plore through the medium of performance what Angie Chabram (1990) has called “institutional ethnography” by locating their gender identities in the context of racialization within the United States academy. Reworking de Beauvoir’s formulation of woman as other, Jones foregrounds the construction of identity in performance to ask, “What is an African American in Africa?” by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
For Jones, performance ethnography de-essentializes notions of blackness by Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from honoring the embodied acts of interaction and dialogue (1996a). While Dun- ham uses “negritude” as a means of describing the sense of ease she felt in 15Although Eve Sedgewick works from Rubin’s distinctions, she concludes that gender is “the whole package of physical and cultural distinctions between men and women” (1990, p. 29). Martin (1994) has argued, “If for Sedgewick, gender becomes sex, and ineluctably follows the principles of binary division, for Butler, sex becomes gender, that is socially constructed, and the principle of binary division is itself contested, even at the level of the body” (p. 110).
16 16Butler has addressed this criticism in her subsequent (1993) book.
working with black folk in Haiti, Jones foregrounds questions of “home and field,” reflecting upon her sense of unease with culturally distinct others and the difficulties of articulating a Pan-African identity. Like Kathleen Stewart (1996), Jones emphasizes the role of memory in ethnography to rework the contours between self and others, subjects and objects. In these works, gender emerges in the very performance of raced, classed, and sexed identities.
Shortly after Rosaldo’s review appeared, This Bridge Called My Back, ed- ited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981), was published to wide ac- claim. A decade later, another collection edited by Gloria Anzaldúa (1991), Making Face/Making Soul, was published with Norma Alarcón’s critical re- view “The Theoretical Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back.” Here Alar- cón contrasted the “modal subject” of Anglo-American feminism, “an autono- mous, self-making, self-determining subject, who first proceeds according to the logic of identification with regard to the subject of consciousness” (p. 357) with the subjects of This Bridge Called My Back displaced “across a multiplic- ity of discourses (feminist/lesbian, nationalist, racial, socioeconomic, histori- cal) implying a multiplicity of positions from which they are driven to grasp or understand themselves and their relations with the real…” (p. 356).
In the wake of the critiques leveled by This Bridge and Making Face, some feminist ethnographers have evolved strategies to deal with the question of mul- tiple positioning. Referring to themselves as “halfie” or “hyphenated” ethnogra- phers, they describe how mixed parentage, ethnic heritage, or racial position- ing have shaped their ethnographic identifications (Abu-Lughod 1993, Behar 1993, Narayan 1993, Kondo 1995, Visweswaran 1994). Others have fore- grounded more radically the meaning of biracial or multiracial identity (Ajani 1994) or have attempted to understand the “social construction of whiteness” (Frankenberg 1993). Although referencing of postcolonial theory is common (Cole & Phillips 1995, Mascia-Lees et al 1989, Steedly 1993, Tsing 1993), many feminist ethnographers have been reluctant to deal explicitly with race— a marked difference from the ethnographic works of the 1930s and 1940s.
Norma Alarcón (1991) and Catherine O’Leary (1997) have both suggested that if standpoint theory works to create subjects of identification, or counteri- by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
dentification, theories of multiple positioning create subjects of “disidentifi- Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from cation.” While there has been some ethnographic work that explores strategies of disidentification or multiple positioning within the text (Jones 1996a,b, Steedly 1993, Tsing 1993), the critique of gender essentialism has been slow to work itself into recent feminist writing in anthropology. Though work on femi- nism and postmodernism critiques gender essentialism (Alcoff 1988, Gordon 1993, Nicholson 1990), the discussion in anthropology has actually reified unproblematized notions of gender (Mascia-Lees et al 1989, Strathern 1987), perhaps because it has narrowly read the debate as one of experimental form.
Some dismiss outright the “philosophical deconstruction” of the term “woman” (Scheper-Hughes 1992), while other feminist anthropologists note that the assumptions of a unifying gender identity are “exclusionary and mysti- fying,” cite a “few illustrious examples” of critique (Steedly 1993), and then proceed to privilege gender as the center of analysis. Notions of sisterly identi- fication abound, and feminist ethnography continues to traffic in intimate forms of address, despite Ann Oakley’s (1981) and Judith Stacey’s (1988, 1990) cautions about the dangerous ground between intimacy and betrayal.
The terms “friend” and “informant” are often used interchangeably in these texts; often without further reflection or comment on the intrinsic contradic- tions of power that are masked in such a slippage.
Working from the genre of feminist testimonial (Patai 1988, Personal Nar- ratives Group 1989), recent feminist ethnography has elaborated a concern with “giving voice” to its subjects. Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992) contends that in spite of “the dissonant voices in the background protesting just this choice of words” that “there is still a role for the ethnographer-writer in giving voice, as best she can, to those who have been silenced…” (p. 28). Karen McCarthy Brown (1991) similarly affirms that “the people who are being stud- ied should be allowed to speak for themselves whenever possible…” (p. 14).
Such concerns align contemporary feminist ethnography with the life his- tory/autobiographies of the 1930s and 1940s that sought to make the narrator transparent or absent from the text. Unlike work of the second period, how- ever, there has been more ambivalence about the question of fiction in current work than one might expect. Although Lila Abu-Lughod’s (1993) recent proj- ect is about telling stories, she is concerned to distance herself from fiction, in- sisting that all of the stories she recounts are “true” and that they have not been “made up.” A similar caution appears in Ruth Behar’s (1993) recent ethnogra- phy: “This book is not a work of fiction” (p. xiv). Even recent attempts that de- ploy the devices of fiction to highlight their ethnographic reporting (Brown 1991, Wolf 1990) juxtapose it with more “ethnographic” accounts (see, how- ever, Behar & Gordon 1995, Visweswaran 1994).
Alternate forms of feminist ethnography have elaborated upon the question by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
of culture by defining “women’s culture” (Abu-Lughod 1987), women’s Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from “work culture” (Lamphere 1987, Sacks 1984, Zavella 1987), women at work (Fernandez-Kelly 1983, Kapchan 1996, Ong 1987, Quinn 1977), therapeutic culture (Cvetkovich 1995), and more recently, women’s participation in popu- lar culture (Ajani 1994, Mankekar 1993). Women’s field accounts (Altorki & El-Sohl 1988) have shifted toward explicitly feminist self-reflexive narratives (Narayan 1993), and feminist work on kinship has similarly shifted from sym- bolic analysis (Collier & Rosaldo 1981, Collier & Yanagisako 1987, Raheja & Gold 1994, Strathern 1972) to more reflexive accounts of kin structures (Bell 1993, Trawick 1990, Weston 1991, Yanagisako 1985). In Margaret Trawick’s (1990) Notes on Love in a Tamil Family, the unspoken part of most ethno- graphic research, “What Led Me to Them,” explores how her own life experi- ences and ethnic identity resulted in fieldwork in India. Judith Stacey’s (1990) Brave New Families is a reflection on “accidental ethnography,” postmodern kin relations, “recombinant family life,” feminism and fundamentalism, while Kath Weston’s (1991) Families We Choose critiques the nuclear family to question the exile of gays and lesbians from kinship, arguing for gay families as alternate forms of family. Feminist ethnographers have also tried to detail women’s speech communities, focusing on speech genres that are performed particularly by women (Abu-Lughod 1987, Kapchan 1996, Serematakis 1991), and in linguistic anthropology, feminists have turned their attention to “communities of practice” (Hall & Bucholtz 1995, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992). Others have turned to neighborhood or “backyard” ethnography (Smith & Watson 1996). Work on the cultural construction of masculinity (Ajani 1994, Ebron 1991; ET Gordon, unpublished manuscript), expanding literature on gay and lesbian communities (Kennedy & Davis 1993, Lewin & Leap 1996, Newton 1993, Weston 1993), and studies on sexuality in the field (Herdt & Stoller 1990, Seizer 1995) are also recent topics of feminist ethnography.
Some forms of feminist ethnography work directly from Mead’s sense of an- thropology as cultural critique (Ginsburg 1989, Tsing 1993), exploring the question of reproductive rights in cross-cultural contexts (Ginsburg & Tsing Despite a variety of textual forms and strategies advanced by feminist eth- nography, life histories, or life stories, continue to be popular modes for first world feminist ethnographers to write about (largely) third world subjects (Be- har 1993, Brown 1991, Davison 1987, Patai 1988), who somehow reflect the entire culture. This is in marked contrast to the development of the genre of feminist biography in the discipline, where subjects like Alice Fletcher, Ma- tilda Cox Stevenson, Elsie Clews Parsons, Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard, Margaret Mead, or Ruth Landes are portrayed as complex, exceptional, often heroic figures who transcend their cultures (Babcock 1992, Deacon 1997, by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from Parezo 1993, Weigle 1982), such that their class, race, or gender prejudices are overlooked or simply ignored (see, however, Foerstel & Gilliam 1992, Mark 1980). This strongly suggests the need to understand how the very genre con- ventions of feminist ethnography are defined by the identification(s) of femi- nist anthropologists with their subjects.
ConclusionIf anthropologists like Elsie Clews Parsons, Margaret Mead, and Gayle Rubin shaped the configurations of US feminism in important ways, contemporary feminist ethnographers have been largely unresponsive to feminist challenges to gender essentialism, relying upon gender standpoint theory, which erases difference through the logic of identification. Yet if we learn to understand gender as not the endpoint of analysis but rather as an entry point into complex systems of meaning and power, then surely there are other equally valid entry points for feminist work. Gender is perhaps best understood as a heuristic de- vice and cannot be understood a priori, apart from particular systems of repre- sentation. To mistake the category for the reality is to create gender as a soci- ologism, reducing it to a male/female dichotomy mistakenly constituted in ad- vance of its operation in any system of social representation.
One of the threads running through this review concerned feminist ethno- graphic interest in relaying the “woman’s point of view.” Such vindicationist writing sought to defend women in other cultures, or used knowledge of women in other cultures to cast light on our own. Yet, as Mary John (1996) notes, this particular ethnographic relationship between (largely) Western women writing about (largely) non-Western women has produced a curious Suddenly a new divide opens out “between feminists” and “other women”—where the assumption seems to be that feminists inhabit one world—the Western one—whereas other women live elsewhere and are not feminist. Why not an ethnography about being a feminist in other places? This is where a broader conception of the relationship of feminist theory to so- cial and nationalist movements might suggest new directions for feminist eth- nographic work. Yet while feminist ethnography has emerged within the con- text of nationalist traditions, as a genre, it has largely failed to address itself to nationalism or state forms of power (but see Williams 1996). To take seriously the idea of writing ethnographies of feminists and feminist movements in other places means we first understand something about the shape feminism takes in other parts of the world. That these feminisms may go by other names—na- tionalist, Pan-Africanist, socialist, Islamist—pushes feminist anthropology to explore different forms of social inequality and the possibility that it may by VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT-Amsterdam-Library on 02/15/10. For personal use only.
authorize and inscribe diverse movements for political equality (Ajani 1994; Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1997.26:591-621. Downloaded from Alarcón 1991; Anzaldúa 1987, 1991; Chabram 1990; Giddens 1984; Sandoval 1991; Warner 1993; ET Gordon, unpublished manuscript), posing again, other histories of feminist ethnography.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTSThis review is dedicated to those who taught me by example that the presence of women in the discipline mattered: Jane Collier, Elizabeth Colson, Pauline Kolenda, Laura Nader, Marilyn Strathern, and Sylvia Yanagisako. I thank the organizers and participants of the Annual Conference on Feminist Anthropol- ogy and Archeology, April 27, 1996, University of Minnesota, for their in- structive comments on this essay, as well as Ann Cvetkovich, Ted Gordon, Charlie Hale, Catherine O’Leary, and Katie Stewart. I thank also Faye Harri- son, Louise Lamphere, and Peter Orne of the Annual Review. I am grateful to Jennifer Burrel and Nicolas Prat for helping to locate numerous materials for Visit the Annual Reviews home page at
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