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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies

The first intervention of feminist anthropologists into the field of kinship studies and, thence, into anthropology more generally, consisted in the creation of a discursive object that would permit the simultaneous critique of existing theories and the reassessment of its empirical claims. That category was "gender," understood as "the constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes" and as "a primary way of signifying relationships of power" (Scott, p. 42). Indeed "power and difference" became the crucial axes of gender analysis from the 1980s onward.

Feminists began by accusing early social theorists, but perhaps especially Claude Lévi-Strauss, of mistaking an ideological justification for the oppression of women with an ontology of the social. Because women are treated as commodities does not imply that their functioning as commodities is logically intrinsic to social life everywhere. Because women are frequently relegated to private or domestic domains does not mean that the social world is logically bifurcated along the axis of public and private or that these domains would have to be gendered when they were. And because sexual difference is the primary structure for differentiation of labor and structuring power in small-scale societies that lack a public sphere does not mean that, logically, gender must be a salient structural principle only in domestic spheres when these are encompassed by larger public ones. From these logical arguments emerged a series of questions regarding the universality and extremity of male dominance, the organization of domestic and public or political life, the relationship between political complexity and the status of women, the range of property systems through which women do or do not gain access to economic resources, and the more subterranean forms of power, value, renown, and influence that women exercise even in those contexts where formal authority is vested in male subjects. In essence, these questions and the energetic research that they spurred were driven by the pursuit of a counterexample. Evidence of equality or a different organizational imperative in one society would undermine claims for the universal virtue, necessity, or naturalness of particular inequalities everywhere else. Or so a generation of feminist scholars hoped. Their project was empiricist and comparativist, collaborative and emphatically political. Its result can be seen in the series of volumes they generated, including those edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (1974), Rayna Reiter (1975), Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (1980), Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock (1980), and Sherry Ortner and Harriett Whitehead (1981).

The contributors to these volumes arrived at various and oftentimes contradictory conclusions. Some of the writers included in Rosaldo and Lamphere's collection, notably Rosaldo, Nancy Chodorow, and Ortner, concluded that male dominance is universal, with Rosaldo attributing it to the division of labor and the distribution of authority across a violently enforced private/public divide, Chodorow locating women's exclusion from the public in their maternal function and the socialization of girls, and Ortner revising Lévi-Strauss's argument to claim that women are universally perceived as relatively close to nature and therefore thought to be in need of more vigorous regulatory oversight. Other writers, however, especially those influenced by Marxist thought and Friedrich Engels's The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, differed. Karen Sacks and, later, Eleanor Leacock (1981) argued that not all societies are dominated by men and that egalitarianism prevails in those where private property, and the particular construction of women as private property, has not yet developed. In this case male dominance is a function of history and a relatively recent emergence. Still others, such as Peggy Sanday, asserted that male dominance is vitiated over time as technology and the transformation of production attenuates the advantages conferred by physical strength.

Such arguments stood or failed according to the persuasiveness with which the ethnographic evidence was adduced, and many of the writers later recanted or were persuaded by competing positions. One of the most lucid and sustained theoretical critiques to emerge from Rosaldo and Lamphere's 1974 volume was penned by Gayle Rubin under the title "The Traffic in Women: Notes Toward a 'Political Economy' of Sex." Rubin's essay commenced with a new category, that of the "sex/gender system." It was intended to overcome the prevalent dichotomy between sexual and economic systems and to prevent sexual relations from being reduced to reproductive function. As a formally empty category, the idea of a sex/gender system demanded ethnographic specification of the same sort that would distinguish between socialist or capitalist production. Rubin took Lévi-Strauss to task precisely for his lack of such differentiation, especially on the question of the traffic in women. Failing to differentiate between historically actual cases of women who are "given in marriage, taken in battle, exchanged for favors, sent as tribute, traded, bought and sold" rendered the notion vacuous for Rubin, and she observed that men are also trafficked—for different purposes (p. 175). Michael Peletz would corroborate this assertion in 1996 with descriptions of the traffic in men by women in nineteenth-century Malay communities. It is, however, in her deconstruction of the concept of gender, as assumed in Lévi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship, that Rubin made her most incisive intervention. Observing that the incest taboo as described by Lévi-Strauss is not merely a prohibition on incest but also on homosexuality and on sameness, one that orchestrates desire in terms of sexual difference, Rubin offered as counterexamples those instances in which same-sex relations are considered necessary for the production of adult gender (as in some parts of New Guinea) and those in which same-sex marriage is permitted (as among the Azande or the Dahomey), or where institutionalized transvestism is practiced (such as Native North America or India). Given these facts, she asserted, the taboo is not universal but merely the representation of a particular, if commonplace, ideology—for which, she admits, both Freud and Lévi-Strauss offer refined descriptions and unapologetic but illegitimate justifications.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies