Women and Anthropology

Anne Bennett. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Many a retrospective take on the history of anthropology has characterized the discipline’s formative decades as deeply rooted in the narrative of male quest. That is not to say, however, that women were never an object of study or that there were not important and influential women anthropologists helping to shape the discipline in its early decades. For the most part, however, women in anthropology (whether observed or observer) through the first half of the 20th century were relegated to a supporting role in the family of man. Theory often reified this notion as did anthropological practice.

One such example is illustrated by the public-private analytical approach to circum-Mediterranean societies that was influential for several decades in the mid-20th century. This approach applied a theory of social structure across a broad region believed to share key cultural traits. Representative of this approach is an influential volume published in 1965, Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, edited by John George Peristiany, which was cited for decades in the anthropology of southern Europe and the Middle East. This volume’s attempt to move beyond ethnographic particularism to vigorous theory making was dominated by a perspective positing that politics and power were located in men’s public worlds, while domesticity, reproduction, and child rearing (and the then-implied corollary, powerlessness) were consigned to the private world of women and the household.

The public sphere was considered more consequential and more prestigious—socially, politically, and culturally— than the private sphere and, as such, occupied a more central place in anthropological research generally. A critical follow-up to this volume was published in 1992, Honor and Grace in Anthropology, coedited by J. G. Peristiany and Julian Pitt-Rivers, in which detractors and apologists collided in a universalism-particularism debate but came to agreement that the honor-shame concept, associated as it was with the public-private dichotomy, was too weak analytically to be a powerful theoretical tool. Although a circum-Mediterranean anthropology is now out of fashion, favoring as it did a de facto anthropology of men, honor, and an exclusionary public sphere, it generated vigorous discussion for several decades on many topics.

Another example of the treatment of women in early anthropology is offered by some incidental research conducted by Alfred Louis Kroeber on women’s fashion. Kroeber had been Franz Boas’s first doctoral student; in 1901 he both received his PhD from Columbia and became the first professor in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In this example, he studied three centuries’ worth of women’s fashion in an effort to offer a case that supported his “superorganic” conception of culture. He found interesting patterns in the variations of styles that, in his view, supported the notion that fashion is purely cultural and beyond the influence of individual choice. Although this is an example of an influential anthropologist’s focus on women’s worlds, it is not necessarily a significant contribution to understanding women’s lives.

In general, the treatment of women in anthropology, before the sea change that came about after the 1960s, was peripheral and in the service of theory building. Drawing from the earlier example of circum-Mediterranean societies, although there are many forms of sex segregation related to public and private space and tied up with notions of honor in these societies, to rely on a starkly dichotomous explanatory framework is to lose sight of much deeper complexities and ambiguities. Or, similarly, Kroeber’s study of women’s fashion was productive in terms of theory building but says nothing about women’s experience, for example, with pressures to conform to changing standards of beauty, or with any number of possible topics that were taken up in earnest after the 1960s, after women as a more central focus of analysis and theory building seeped into the discipline.

Iconic Women in Early Anthropology

The German-born “father of American anthropology,” Franz Boas, established the first doctoral degree-granting anthropology program in the United States at Columbia University and, among other achievements, mentored many prominent female anthropologists. This list includes Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887-1948), Ruth Leah Bunzel (1898-1990), Frederica de Laguna (1906-2004), Ella Cara Deloria (1888-1971), Viola Edmundson Garfield (1899-1983), Erna Gunther (1896-1982), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Margaret Mead (1901-1978), Elsie Clews Parsons (1875-1941), and Gladys Amanda Reichard (1893-1955). All of these women made significant contributions to the discipline. Four among them were eventually elected presidents of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), starting with Elsie Clews Parsons in 1941. Parsons came to anthropology from sociology and is noted, among other things, for her feminism and textual innovations. Ruth Benedict, who along with Boas mentored a generation of students at Columbia, was the next woman elected AAA president, in 1948. Margaret Mead, who enjoyed widespread popularity among the general public, became AAA president in 1960. Frederica de Laguna, who founded the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr College and conducted research among the Pima, Salish, Makah, and Tlingit, was elected president in 1967.

Mead and Benedict achieved particularly wide renown among the general public with their best-selling books: Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928) and Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), both of which have gone through numerous editions, translations, and reprints. These two books were immensely successful in popularizing cultural anthropology and making the case for cultural relativism, a hallmark of American anthropology as established by Boas. Mead’s audience was voyeuristically fascinated by her depiction of a worry-free, sexually uninhibited Samoan adolescence and by extension the notion that adolescence is not a universally fraught experience as Americans might have assumed. Benedict’s cross-cultural comparison of Dobu (New Guinea), Kwakiutl, and Zuni societies in Patterns of Culture was an argument against judging negatively the values and practices of peoples from different cultures. “Good,” Benedict persuaded, is not absolute and universal but relative to a particular culture. Both of these best-selling books reached a public that was receptive to Benedict’s and Mead’s often idealizing and didactic lessons.

Although both of these women had high-profile careers and made important theoretical contributions, they both faced forms of gender discrimination in their professional lives. As progressive and encouraging as Boas was with his female students and colleagues, he also was ineluctably of his time in hiring practices in assuming that married women did not need employment. Mead, for example, never held a full-time academic appointment. For most of her career, starting in 1926 and during her first marriage, she held a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Mead defended her position at the museum proudly, saying that it was far more advantageous for her than a professorship would have been. Her museum job gave her ample time to focus on writing, traveling, and research, enabling her to be the most productive scholar possible. Benedict, meanwhile, was considered ineligible for a salaried academic position while she was married. Boas essentially gave his position at Barnard to the unmarried Gladys Reichard in 1923, the year that Benedict received her PhD. It was not until after her divorce in 1931 that Benedict was able to secure a full-time academic position. When she did so, she was not only the first woman to receive a full-time academic appointment at Columbia University (in 1931), but also the only other full-time anthropology professor at Columbia besides Franz Boas for several years.

“Papa Franz,” as many of his Columbia students referred to him, served as patriarch-mentor and father figure at Columbia’s anthropology department. He firmly guided the trajectories of most of his female students’ careers, deciding where most of them were to conduct research and on what topic. For example, he directed many of his female students to conduct fieldwork at Zuni Pueblo in the American Southwest, because it was considered safer than other more far-flung and less well-known field sites. As a result, most of his female students and colleagues developed active research programs focused on Native American groups among whom Boas had already established ties in the course of his career, including the Inuit, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Zuni. Some of his female students focused on other locales, typically with his approval and support. Boas encouraged Zora Neale Hurston to collect folklore in contexts familiar to her, the African American South and Caribbean, just as he encouraged Ella Deloria to focus within her own context on the language and oral traditions of the Sioux. Mead, however, defied Boas in choosing to conduct her dissertation field-work in American Samoa rather than at Zuni Pueblo, although she did adhere to Papa Franz’s insistence that she focus on adolescence and the nature-nurture debate, when she would have preferred to investigate culture change. Mead’s assent to Boas on her Samoan research topic greatly influenced the trajectory of the rest of her career.

Among these women anthropologists trained by Boas, and after 1931 by Benedict, Mead was the one who focused most specifically and extensively on women and their lives. After the success of her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), she went on to conduct field research among Native Americans (Omaha), and different groups in Papua New Guinea (Arapesh, Biwar, and Chambri) that resulted in pioneering works on gender consciousness, Sex and Temperament in Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949). In these books, she was groundbreaking in separating biologically based sex from socially constructed gender as she continued her inquiry into nature-nurture questions by asking whether temperamental differences between the sexes were culturally determined or innate. Her popular audience continued to be fascinated with the many cross-cultural examples she described that contrasted so sharply with gender role expectations in the United States at the time. Mead’s popular voice was enhanced through her frequent lecturing and the regular column she contributed to Redbook, a popular magazine oriented toward married women, in which she responded to questions from readers.

Kinship Studies and the Sexual Division of Labor

Kinship Studies

Since kinship is one of the primary ways that humans determine relatedness to one another and from there extrapolate patterns of obligation, reciprocity, and status, it has been a staple in both American and European anthropology since the inception of the discipline. Studying kinship bespeaks an interest in the family, marriage, and the management of female reproduction. But mere presence in an anthropological discussion does not itself generate a nuanced understanding or representation of women’s lives. Moreover, and as some of the previous examples show, there was a tendency in earlier anthropology to view women as objects of interest only insofar as they helped illustrate a particular theory or dutifully played a part in the larger social structure.

In anthropology, most pre-1970s scholarship on both kinship theory and the sexual division of labor ignored or naturalized sexual difference and assumed universal “natural” male dominance. The earlier treatments of kinship took a rather fixed view of kinship structure, which extended as well to discussions of “preferred” marriage patterns. By contrast, post-1970s revisions of kinship tend to stress the inherent flexibility of kinship designations and categories. More recent understandings of kin-based relatedness and preferred marriages stress that they are not necessarily the product of fixed rules. One classic example comes from the Middle East, where it has long been assumed and commented upon that paternal first cousin marriage was a preferred marriage pattern. Although not untrue, there is nonetheless considerable flexibility regarding, for example, who exactly is considered a bint ‘amm (paternal uncle’s daughter) or ibn ‘amm (paternal uncle’s son). The designation “paternal first cousin” seems specific, but its application can in fact be quite fluid, just as marriage matches that are considered preferable can be so for many contextually specific reasons besides the location of potential spouses in a kinship diagram. Revised approaches to kinship studies emphasize that classificatory kinship terminologies, kinship categories, and preferred marriage patterns can all look quite different on the ground than the normative view might claim and thus need to be understood on a case-by-case basis. What is valued, desired, or considered normative shifts from generation to generation with changing social, political, and economic constraints and, even more immediately, can change from interview to interview in a single context depending upon who is interviewing whom, who else might be present at the time, and so on.

Sexual Division of Labor

Along with kinship studies, the sexual division of labor has long been a bedrock concept in anthropology’s cultural inventory. The classic and long-held understanding of the sexual division of labor model maintained that men and women had universally distinctive work routines and differential access to labor resources. This stance thus posits stark dichotomies among men and women and, further, implies universal inequality and male dominance. In the mid-1990s, M. Priscilla Stone, Glenn Davis Stone, and Robert M. Netting effectively countered the major assumptions underlying the conventional anthropological understandings of the sexual division of labor in an agricultural context with their year-long labor analysis of Nigerian Kofyar intensive agriculture. They took issue with the consensus that “there is a nearly universal difference in the agricultural work routines of men and women [and that] women have more limited means than men for mobilizing labor” (Stone, Stone, & Netting, 1995, p. 166). Instead, they found that “in contrast to others who emphasize processes that cut across and through households… we stress the degree of cooperation and overlapping interests that characterizes the Kofyar household” (Stone et al., 1995, p. 166).

Their contribution was one important example of the broad and sweeping revision of received wisdom that took place in the last quarter of the 20th century in anthropology. What had heretofore been the proverbial nuts and bolts of anthropology’s analytical toolkit, from kinship to the sexual division of labor and beyond, was re-tooled— reassessed, revised, and reframed. This new perspective on an old topic was in no small part the result of anthropologists looking more closely and critically at what actually was going on in women’s worlds. Stone et al. argued against universalizing about the sexual division of labor in agriculture, and they made the case for looking closely at context; in this case, they looked at both women’s and men’s contributions to the household in painstaking detail. This meant accounting for every hour spent laboring by both men and women over one year, including differentiating by crop and by task such as field clearing, beer brewing, harvesting, planting, ridging, weeding, and so on.

The sexual division of labor has also been important in archaeological reconstructions of the past and in anthropological studies conducted among living hunter-gatherers/ foragers. A “man the hunter” model dominated Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore’s edited volume of the same name, (1968) tellingly subtitled The First Intensive Survey of a Single Crucial Stage of Human Development—Man’s Once Universal Hunting Way of Life. This collection brought together papers from a 1966 symposium on small-scale, nonagricultural, “living fossil” hunter-gatherer societies and included case studies from Africa, Australia, India, and South America. DeVore and Lee had, in 1963, helped establish the Harvard Kalahari Project in Botswana, a long-term research program that, to date, has produced over 20 books and over 200 articles, as well as a veritable industry of controversy on many topics. In the 1970s, Lee would change the terminology he used to refer to the !Kung San from hunter-gatherers to foragers based upon evidence that the greater proportion of the !Kung San diet came from collected food, not hunted meat. A “man the hunter” model had asserted that men procured most of the food—and most of the prestige in the process—and that women were categorically not involved in hunting, neither of which is necessarily the case, at least not universally. Lee and DeVore’s Man the Hunter is a good example of what has subsequently been criticized as an exclusionary, proscriptive take on the sexual division of labor, whereby women’s roles were understood more by what they were not doing or not permitted to do rather than what they were doing.

Late-20th-Century Trends and Future Directions

Many upheavals—both external and internal, as well as practical and theoretical—have marked anthropology and social science as a whole in the last third of the 20th century. Nothing remained quite the same after the major shifts in social consciousness that took place in the 1960s. The civil rights, Native American, antiwar, and women’s movements all effected sweeping changes in American society and in the ways that social scientists conceived of their research. Within this ferment, the anthropological treatment of women was at first very specifically focused on the question of women’s status relative to men’s status from prehistory to the present.

Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere’s coedited volume Women, Culture, and Society (1974) reflects this moment well. This collection, firmly anchored in a feminist anthropology sensibility, brought a programmatic new set of questions to anthropology, proposed new theoretical directions, and did so with a sense of urgency and purpose. Contributors to Rosaldo and Lamphere’s volume mostly agreed that universal asymmetry defined sex roles in most societies, but they took an entirely different view of the nature of that asymmetry than had been dominant in previous generations: “The secondary status of woman in society is one of the true universals, a pan-cultural fact. Yet within that universal fact, the specific cultural conceptions and symbolizations of woman are extraordinarily diverse and even mutually contradictory” (Ortner in Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974, p. 67). For her part, Rosaldo focused on the structural opposition between the public and domestic orientations of men and women in society, while firmly rejecting conventional understandings associated with that split, especially regarding power relations:

In those societies where domestic and public spheres are firmly differentiated, women may win power and value by stressing their differences from men.… The very symbolic and social conceptions that appear to set women apart and to circumscribe their activities may be used by women as a basis for female solidarity and worth.… Extra-domestic ties with other women are, then, an important source of power and value for women in societies that create a firm division between public and domestic, or male and female roles. (Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974, pp. 37-39)

By the 1980s, however, before her untimely death, Rosaldo had shifted away from a dichotomizing public-domestic analysis to an approach that emphasized gender and the interdependence between women and men. This shift is reflected across the discipline generally and in feminist anthropologically specifically.

The contributors to Women, Culture, and Society were hoping to effect change beyond revised analyses and theory making in anthropology:

My interest in the problem is of course more than academic: I wish to see genuine change come about, the emergence of a social and cultural order in which as much of the range of human potential is open to women as is open to men. (Ortner in Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974, p. 67)

Indeed, many of the volume’s contributors went on not only to have productive and influential careers in anthropology but to remain active advocates for gender equity. Louise Lamphere, for example, who became AAA president (1999-2001), received the Squeaky Wheel Award in 1998 from the Committee on the Status of Women in Anthropology “for her lifelong work for the equality of women in anthropology.” In her 2001 presidential address at the 100th annual meeting of the AAA, Lamphere referred to Rosaldo as “one of the pioneering young feminist anthropologists who helped revive the discipline’s interest in women,” adding that Rosaldo’s contribution to their coedited book “developed out of her participation in the early 1970s women’s movement” and was motivated by the notion that “theory had a critical role to play in political change” (Lamphere, 2004, p. 135).

Rosaldo and Lamphere’s volume helped establish a framework for a veritable explosion of anthropological research on women and gender. What started out as an investigation focused somewhat narrowly on “where women are and how we got here” has expanded dramatically in subsequent decades. Anthropological treatments of women have come to pay close attention to the myriad ways that women negotiate, resist, and/or accommodate power and moreover how they do so within overlapping contexts of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. A number of subspecialties developed over the late 20th and early 21st centuries continue to produce fascinating and trenchant analyses of women and, for example, their experiences with and roles in colonial and postcolonial history, labor markets, and increasingly intrusive medical technologies. An interest in the dynamics of gender and identity itself has proliferated as well and considers everything from early child socialization (for which linguistic anthropology makes important contributions) to hybrid sexualities.

Ann Laura Stoler and Partha Chatterjee are just two of many noteworthy anthropologists whose theoretically rigorous research examines, among other things, the roles women have played within larger imperial and governmental contexts, such as colonialism, postcolonialism, nation building, and state formation. Their analyses typically give a nuanced accounting of class, gender, power, and race extant in these relationships. For example, one important, often-cited article of Stoler’s makes the argument that in the later colonial period, European wives of colonial administrators were encouraged to set up house in the colonies in an effort to maintain sex segregation between European men and local women. To do so was to preserve an all-important sense of racial superiority that was undermined, or at least severely challenged, by the existence of mixed race offspring (Stoler, 1989). These European women were strictly trained in how to establish a happy home in order to keep their husbands focused on family. These women, she concludes, were both oppressed and oppressors. The onus put on them to maintain racial and class superiority created an oppressive situation for them, and they, in turn, oppressed indigenous women and men whom they employed or otherwise dealt with in country. A complementary example is offered by Indian scholar Chatterjee (1989), who discusses the effects of Britain’s “civilizing mission” on India. One Indian response was to promote an image of a new Indian woman, an examplar and embodiment of a distinctively modern Indian national culture. This new female icon was considered superior to both Western women and “traditional” or lower-class Indian women. Better than the West also meant better than the rest of Indian women from lower status groups.

Labor studies offer another rich line of inquiry into women’s lives in recent anthropology. Anthropologists have always been interested in what people do to make a living, as the long life of the sexual division of labor model attests. The difference in post-1960s anthropology is reflected in the proliferation of ethnographies that look in depth at women’s economic lives, accounting for everything else related to that from intimate kin relations to global markets. One notable example, keeping in mind that there are many noteworthy examples from which to choose, is Gracia Clark’s Onions Are My Husband (1994), an expansive, detailed ethnography of Western Ghana’s Kumasi central market, where the “market queens” shrewdly negotiate with other queens, customers, vendors, police, market associations, and so forth as they make their livings. This ethnography, exhaustive in its detail, accounts not only for the dynamics of the local markets but also for how they are affected by regional, national, and global markets. In the Middle East context, Jenny White has made important contributions to the understanding of women’s labor in an urban Turkish context (2004). She focuses on rural immigrants to Istanbul and how their outside wage work, which is culturally valued but poorly compensated, affects kinship relations and social identity. White locates women’s paid work in larger contexts of global capitalism, Islam, gender, and Turkish family life.

In addition to labor studies, another important area of inquiry in recent decades of anthropology concerns “the body,” embodiment, and reproduction (both theoretical and literal reproduction). One important example is Emily Martin’s highly influential The Woman in the Body, which appeared in 1989 and is currently in its third edition. In it, she compares the way women speak about their own reproductive processes with the mechanistic model that informs the way their bodies are viewed and treated in medical settings. For example, Martin claims that medical science views menstruation as an instance of failed reproduction. Some women accept this model, but some do not. Among Martin’s informants, middle-class women tended to accept the failed reproduction model and were described as “mystified” by the physical process, whereas working-class women, both black and white, resist that conception and speak about menstruation in more explicit, immediate, and straightforward ways than middle-class women.

The next generation of “woman and the body” research reflects a biomedical landscape that is increasingly complex and ethically fraught. Amniocentesis, in vitro fertilization, DNA testing, and surrogacy are but a few of the (often painful and invasive) treatments that raise complex personal and societal questions about reproduction— such as how reproduction can be manipulated, why, and with what results. This type of anthropological inquiry takes on the nexus between women’s bodies and biomedical technology and considers the often confusing morass of ethically ambiguous options and technologies that are available to individuals, both women and men, dealing with infertility all over the world. For example, Rayna Rapp (2000) examined the social and personal challenges that fetal testing and prenatal diagnosis bring to women across a spectrum of racial, cultural, religious, educational, and financial backgrounds. In a more cross-cultural vein, Marcia Inhorn has done a great deal of important work, across the Middle East, on fertility and infertility issues that affect both women and men (Inhorn, 2006). Also from the anthropology of the Middle East, there are two ethnographies (Kahn, 2000; Kanaaneh, 2000) that lend themselves well to comparison in that they focus on two different groups of women in the State of Israel—Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee region and Israeli Jews—and their experiences related to reproduction, including fertility issues and reproductive technologies, sexuality, beauty, and political demography. These ethnographies describe the reproducing female body as a site of complex meddling and identity formation at the individual, communal, and national level.

These trends and ethnographic cases exemplify several exciting and productive directions that the anthropological treatment of women has taken in recent decades.

Women and Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology formally emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of the holistic, four-field approach championed by Boas. He insisted, for both practical and theoretical purposes, that language was a necessary lens through which to gain insight into culture. But he left it to his students to develop the language and culture connection further. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf’s so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fueled decades of productive, yet ultimately unresolved, debate across disciplines regarding the “linguistic relativity principle” and the degree to which language influences or even determines a worldview. This principle holds that language is more than just a means of communication; it actually shapes perception and exemplifies each society’s unique model of the world. Gender and language studies would later invoke this principle across a range of language and culture issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, an extended argument raged regarding the common use of gender-neutral “he,” which feminist detractors insisted projects a diminishment of the female across language and penetrates into individual and social consciousness, influencing the worldview as per the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Calls for gender-based language reform of sexist language came from many quarters, including linguistic anthropology. Gender-based language reform has been remarkably successful over the past 40-year period. Popular use of terminology that feminists had labeled sexist has in many cases shifted to significantly more neutral options that are widely used, including the use of a singular “they” for “he” and “she” (or an alternation among “he,” “she,” and “they”), “Ms.” (as an alternative for “Miss” or “Mrs.,” both of which identify a female based upon her marital status, contrary to the nonparallel example of “Mr.”), and gender-neutral vocabulary related to work, such as “flight attendant” and “salesperson.”

From “Women’s Language” to “Gender and Language”

For linguistic anthropologists, a sustained focus on women’s language is typically traced back to Robin Tolmach Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place (1975). Lakoff, a linguist and not an anthropologist, was not the first to write about women’s speech, gender differences in language, sexist language, or gender-linked variation. But her book is widely regarded as having inaugurated gender and language studies. Lakoff proposed that a female speech style exists; it is characterized by the use of hesitations, qualifiers, “tag questions,” excessive politeness, and “empty” adjectives that together work to weaken or mitigate the force of an utterance. She claimed, for example, that women ask tag questions more often than men, because women feel compelled to soften what they say, rather than be forceful and direct. She believed that the uncertainty expressed by tag questions reflected women’s relative weakness in society. The actual findings on tag questions reveals significantly more complexity while at the same time supporting the notion that power is delicately negotiated in speech events that include tag questions. In claiming that women’s language was a powerless language and further that it contributed to perpetuating male dominance and inequality between the sexes, Lakoff also emphasized women’s own complicity in perpetuating inequality, by both using women’s language and socializing their children into its use as well.

Over a quarter century later, some of Lakoff’s insights may sound dated, and some of her claims have been disproven, or at least more succinctly problematized (especially regarding tag questions), but the overall impact of her book remains significant for having started the conversation on gender and language in a productive way. Lakoff argued for a notion of women’s language as a social act, an act with real consequences, that is, the reproduction of power inequities. This aspect of her approach resonated deeply with linguistic anthropologists, for whom “language as a social act” is a central tenet.

Overall, linguistic anthropology came to reject the essentializing aspects of Lakoff’s approach, such as the notion implied in her analysis that women’s language was part of a separate women’s culture, when in practice there is much more cross-referencing, ambiguity, and shifting of contexts taking place:

If we understand women’s everyday talk and linguistic genres as forms of resistance, we hear, in any culture, not so much a clear and heretofore neglected “woman’s voice,” or separate culture, but rather linguistic practices that are more ambiguous, often contradictory, differing among women of different classes and ethnic groups. (Gal, 1989, p. 178)

In critiquing Lakoff and other feminists writing on “women’s language,” Susan Gal emphasized the necessity of attending not only to words, but also to ethnographic context—the interactions in which these words are found and the larger political and economic contexts of communication. A research program that focuses on gender, speech, and power, as Gal described her own “theme,” must determine what power and powerful language look like cross-culturally, something of which Lakoff and many other feminist commentators on language were woefully neglectful. In direct contrast to the type of argument explicated by Lakoff—grounded as it was in the white, middle-class experience—Gal describes an example from Madagascar in which Malagasy men’s speech is characteristically indirect and deferential, avoiding confrontation, while women’s speech is more direct, prone to angry outburst, and seen as conflictual. Among the Malagasy, it is universally agreed that men’s speech is considered superior to women’s speech.

The Malagasy example notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that the ethnographic literature shows that many of the features that Lakoff identified as characteristic of women’s language—silence, indirectness, politeness—are in fact often associated cross-culturally with women’s ways of communicating. Still that fact in isolation does not reveal much about the rest of the picture, such as how power is defined and differentiated in a particular culture or society or what other dynamics, such as class, race, gender, and ethnicity, are affecting social relations in general or in a particular speech event. Silence, to take one important example, is an inherently ambiguous communicative resource that does not always indicate the deference and passivity that Lakoff claimed it did. Sometimes, Gal emphasizes, silence is an effective way to enact opposition or resistance.

Language Socialization, Variationist Studies, and the Japanese Case

Language socialization studies is an important subfield of linguistic anthropology that sheds light on how girls and boys learn the gender norms of their society. Since the late 1970s, a great deal of research has been conducted on how children and other novice language learners become both communicatively and culturally competent across the various speech communities they inhabit throughout their lives. To learn language is to learn culture, echoing the important link that Boas insisted upon in the early 20th century. Ideologies, identities, stances, values, practices—including those associated with gender norms and identities—are all learned in the process of language socialization.

In addition, language variationist studies have a great deal to offer in analyses of language, culture, and gender. Language variationist studies look at the different ways that members of the same “communities of practice” speak. Everything from phonological variation (pronunciation differences) through grammar to vocabulary is important in “self-constitution,” that is, in showing who you are and what your affiliations are. Penelope Eckert spent three years conducting participant-observations at “Belten High” (Eckert, 2000). She found that over the course of their high school years, girls’ speech tends to become increasingly standard, while boys’ speech becomes increasingly nonstandard. She claims that this reflects several things, including different senses of maturity, that nonstandard grammar is associated with autonomy (versus girls’ conformity), and that boys are expected to curse more (reflecting gender norms that hold girls should be more conformist than boys, and boys have license to curse and speak more sloppily than girls). She also found telling symbolic significance associated with phonological variation that showed an interesting cross-cutting of gender and class categories. Different styles of pronunciation were shown to be inextricably linked with the construction of identity. Moreover, she emphasized how gender is not only a matter of male and female but also is embedded in other parts of our social lives, along with other socially significant categories, such as class, race, and ethnicity.

It is relevant to note here that language variationist studies typically come out of a sociolinguistics tradition (linguistics). There is, however, extensive overlapping and cross-referencing among sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology in the area of gender and language studies. There is also some active disagreement regarding these subdisciplines’ genealogies and disciplinary homes. For the purposes of this chapter, however, these disciplinary arguments are omitted in favor of maintaining the extended general focus on the anthropological treatment of women’s arguments. Scores of syllabi across many universities attest to the fact that Eckert’s “Belten High” case study is used extensively in linguistic anthropology classes across the country.

Finally, a productive case study that has been revisited often by linguistic anthropologists interested in women’s language is that of Japan. In Japan, there are not only distinct female and male speech registers, but also other distinctive isoo (“sections”), styles of speech that reflect age, generation, social background, class, gender, regional background, and profession. Language is thus very tied up with Japanese self-presentation and identity construction. Japanese women’s language itself is characterized by the use of certain sentence-final particles (-wa), superpolite forms of speech (including honorifics), slow tempo, high pitch, and other features. It is seen as a highly valued cultural ideal—beautiful, elegant, and sophisticated—and important as a symbol of Japan itself. In the popular media, anxiety is expressed by some over the belief that women’s language is disappearing—that the speech styles of all Japanese women are changing from less feminine to more masculine, and that young girls’ speech in particular is becoming rough. At the same time, the use of honorifics is weakening in general in Japan, across all of society. Comparatively speaking, however, there is considerably less anxiety associated with declining use of honorifics than with changes related to women’s language.

The Kogal phenomenon, a predominantly teenage girls’ subculture, has provided one interesting site through which to examine ideologies related to women’s language. Being Kogal is enacted through language and behavior. The language used when girls perform as Kogals includes nonstandard forms, novel coinages, and explicit references to sexual or taboo topics. They use terms considered to be demeaning (“bitch” or “girl”) “owning” the terms as endearing and playful forms of address. The dominant ideology holds that teenage girls’ demeanor and speech should reflect qualities of innocence, modesty, docility, and deference. Japanese media have accused them of destroying their language.

Women in the Middle East

As with the rest of anthropology, the treatment of women in the anthropology of the Middle East was, until the 1970s, largely unidimensional and focused on formal roles. To complicate matters, however, there is a long history of mutual antagonism, suspicion, and misrepresentation between the Middle East and the West that goes back even further than the medieval Crusades and is alive and well in the early 21st century. It is certainly something that has thrived in both scholarship and the arts, as has been so famously documented by Edward Said (1978, 1993). Central to the perpetuation of this long-standing unease has been the “Middle Eastern woman,” repeatedly stereotyped as passive, oppressed, and veiled. In addition, this stereotypically oppressed woman has sometimes played an inadvertent role in justifying outside intervention—to “save” her—from the colonial period to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Lila Abu-Lughod, a major figure in Middle East anthropology, addresses the latter example in a trenchant piece presented shortly after 9/11 (AbuLughod, 2002).

An important exception to the prevailing pre-1970s uni-dimensionality with respect to women was Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village (1965), written while accompanying her husband, Robert Fernea, during his dissertation fieldwork on changing relations of political authority in a rural, southern village. Guests of the Sheik was the first in a very long line of contributions that Fernea made over her lifetime to an anthropology of Middle Eastern women (and their families and lives), both in print and in a number of documentaries. Guests of the Sheik is still in print and continues to be used frequently in university courses on the peoples of the Middle East. It offers a view “behind the veil” into women’s lives and is effective in helping dismantle the stereotypes that students typically bring with them to the topic of women in the Middle East.

A relative absence of women in the scholarship of the Middle East, especially through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, perpetuated various assumptions: Women play little or no significant role in society, the world of men is much more interesting and significant than that of women, gender relations are not an issue, and there is little if any crossing of the boundaries between men’s and women’s worlds. Certainly this parallels what went on in other corners of anthropology at the same time, as discussed earlier. This kind of message reifies certain notions of power and associated notions of a public-private split in which the world is divided into neat binaries. It also has contributed to an implicit devaluing of theory in anthropology that comes out of women’s experience, which is explicitly referred to in Abu-Lughod’s 1989 Annual Review of Anthropology article on “zones of theory” in the Arab world. In this piece, Abu-Lughod identifies three gate-keeping concepts in the anthropology of the Middle East: segmentary lineage, the harem, and Islam. Segmentary lineage, she points out, has contributed the most in terms of theory, and thus prestige, to anthropology. The other two gate-keeping concepts she identifies as those of Islam and the harem (or, women). In referring to the harem, AbuLughod is clearly hearkening to the legacy that sensationalized focus on out-of-context phenomena, such as veiling and female circumcision, has created in both popular and academic views of the region. Veiling itself is a nonspecific gloss for any number of practices that are informed by often-competing ideologies. Also, veiling itself is not a frozen practice; it changes over time and means different things to different people at different times in their lives. An anthropology of Middle Eastern women in the past four decades has made this dynamism increasingly apparent.

It should go without saying that ideological conventions concerning women and gender vary considerably across the Middle East. There is not only no single Islamic view on women, but also, of course, no single Arab, Jewish, Christian, or Turkish view. The anthropology of Middle Eastern women has become increasingly effective at making this variety and contestation clear.

A generation of solid ethnographic work on women appeared in the 1970s and 1980s that focused on women in their familial, domestic, and village contexts. This work was very successful in presenting humanized portraits of very unfamiliar (to Western readers) and mystifying lives long considered exotic. These valuable contributions gave detailed accounts of women’s lives in very dense local contexts, accounting for processes of change in family patterns, livelihoods, household production patterns, and so on. A short list of contributions to this output includes Lila Abu-Lughod (1986) on Egyptian Bedouin women’s lives, Christine Eickelman (1984) on women and community in Oman, Suad Joseph (1977, 1978, 1983, 1988) on women and the family in Lebanon, Andrea Rugh (1984, 1997) on family in Egypt and Syria, and Nancy Tapper on marriage, kinship, and politics in Afghan society (1978, 1991). They tended to present more “traditional” anthropological settings, that is, villages and tribal peoples. A more recent trend in anthropology has been to account for urban lives, such as Farha Ghannam’s (2002) work in Cairo on the topic of “modernizing” entire neighborhoods by relocation and Christa Salamandra’s Damascus ethnography (2004), which is also a departure not only for its focus on an urban context but also for its focus on the elite classes, which anthropology in general has by and large avoided.

Future Directions (Middle East)

As the late 1980s and 1990s progressed, ethnographic treatments of women’s lives began to reflect a more fragmented, globalized, and disruptive world. Smadar Lavie’s work on the Mzeina Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsula (1990) discussed the effects of Egyptian occupation, Israeli occupation, drug smuggling, and prison stays, as well as shifting gender norms in villages that are tourist sites and where men are away most of the year earning money.

One of the richest lines of inquiry in Middle East ethnography currently involves those works that consider the links between modernity, Islam, and women. The issue of how to balance modernity and tradition has long been a difficult one in Middle Eastern society. A neologism, gharbzadegi, or “Westoxication,” was coined in the mid-20th century that describes being addicted to and intoxicated by the West, which also is believed to reflect Iranian self-hatred and self-doubt about themselves. On the one hand, there have been robust “modernization” movements—in Ataturk’s Turkey, Nasser’s Egypt, and the shah’s Iran—that brought many irrevocable social changes, many of which have been viewed as betrayals of indigenous principles and local heritage. This complicated dynamic, tied up with notions of modernity, is part of an ongoing tug-of-war in a Middle East that is now very “wired” and very young. Future directions in the anthropology of Middle East women will necessarily deal with this dynamic as well as with the corresponding “mediatization” of women’s (and others’) lives.

Lara Deeb’s ethnography of Shi’ite women in southern Beirut, for example, focuses on how a modern “authenticated” Islam is created through women’s activism, especially volunteering at local community centers, and women’s active engagement with religious discourse. The Shi’ite women in this ethnography, for example, acknowledge that theirs is a patriarchal society, but they stress that an authenticated Islam, one based on engagement with the Koran, offers gender parity. Women can interpret religious texts and debate them with men, which they do with great frequency. The theme of men’s misinterpretation of texts is a common one in everyday conversation. These women not only embrace models of strong women in Islamic history, especially Zaynab, but also Aisha and Khadija (all were wives of Muhammed). In short, this is one of several recent ethnographies problematizing the link between women’s roles in defining both modernity and tradition, religious or otherwise. Deeb’s work is nicely paralleled by both Saba Mahmood’s important work on the women’s mosque movement in Egypt (2005) and Azam Torab’s research in south Tehran among Shi’ite women (2007), with its focus on women’s increasing influence and participation in mosques.

There has also been a great deal of productive anthropological work done on issues related to women’s health, public health, and demographic issues in the Middle East. A recent summarizing article by Marcia Inhorn is especially valuable in laying out what this body of anthropological literature, over 150 volumes, has brought over the past 25 years to the study of women’s health, public health, reproductive politics, and gender roles in the Middle East, including, importantly, changing notions of masculinity and partnership in marriage (Inhorn, 2006). One important point concerns how a

specifically ethnographic approach [offering up deeply qualitative, women’s voices] to women’s health leads to a particular set of insights that are important, timely, and quite different from the women’s health research agenda currently being promoted within biomedical and public health circles. (p. 346)

Anthropology’s tendency to focus in these ethnographies on women’s and men’s voices, Inhorn claims, could be a valuable source of information for public health officials in understanding many of the health-demoting aspects of biomedicine that exist.

In short, the future trend of the anthropology of Middle Eastern women will continue to humanize and demystify their lives. Major topics will include reproductive politics and practices, changing notions of family, accommodating modernity on their own terms, effects of large-scale rural-to-urban movement, and mediatization.


The state of the art in the anthropological treatment of women is impressive in both its depth and breadth. Anthropology has gone from studying women in a largely essentialized and somewhat marginalizing fashion in its earlier decades to a more contemporary concern, not only with women per se, but also with gender relations as they interact and are mutually informed by a number of interpenetrating axes of power, class, technology, ethnicity, and so forth. To have gotten from one end of this arc to the other has taken a little over a century.

Lamphere, in her 2001 presidential address at the 100th annual American Anthropological Association meeting, emphasized the structural marginality of some of the iconic women anthropologists of Boas’s era. The most influential female anthropologists were of their time, in that their access to professional academic and research opportunities was mediated through the support of their benevolent patriarch, Boas, who was admittedly very ahead of his time in actively encouraging these opportunities for his female students. All of the early women anthropologists, however, laid a fundamental groundwork that enabled later generations to take off running when the opportunity arose. Lamphere, for example, claimed that Elsie Clews Parsons was structurally marginal in the discipline until elected AAA president in 1941, despite having joined Boas and Benedict on the Columbia faculty—exerting her own influence as an advisor, mentor, and patron.

Future directions in anthropology that concern women’s lives will continue to reflect the challenging ambiguities people face navigating the many technologically mediated aspects of our lives, as well as the challenges and opportunities of living in a globalized, transnational, and information-saturated world. For anthropological treatments of women specifically, this will include continued research on issues related to reproductive technologies. There are some interesting parallels between future directions and old concerns to the degree that kinship and labor studies are still prominent concerns, but with the important caveat that these bedrock topics are now looked at in radically different ways than they were 100 years ago. This reflects a number of dynamics at work over the past century.