Undoing Invisibility: A Review of Feminist Anthropology

Feminist anthropology is an anthropological approach which primarily critiques the century-old phenomena of anthropological bias. It specifically critiques the euro-centric, heteronormative and patriarchally oriented bias (Anderson, 2012). It wishes to encourage the inclusivity of women (and other minorities) in the practice of anthropology. It also promotes the need to acknowledge the subjectivity of the experiences of minority groups.

According to Lynn Walter, feminist anthropology is approached in the form of a threefold project. The first aim is the intellectual engagement with questions concerning a perpetuating inequality in knowledge and power and the construction of differences that uphold such disparities over time. In other words, it must be provocatively interrogative. The second aim is to analyze how human beings accommodate and resist oppression and oppressive structures. The third aim is to demand a “justice claim” which obligates anthropologists to engage in the ethics and morality of their study. This includes acknowledging the positionality of the anthropologist and the effects that this will have on their research. (1995, p. 273)

In order to understand the reasons for the emergence of feminist anthropology and its aims, it is important to understand the history, context and condition of the broader discipline of anthropology which feminist anthropology seeks to address.

The Historical Shortcomings of Anthropology

It is evident that feminist anthropology emerged as a response against certain shortcomings within the discipline of anthropology itself. It represents a missing portion of the debate which had hitherto been ignored. Although the historical roots of anthropology were not intentionally exclusionary, the economic, social and geographical conditions within which the discipline emerged have contributed to its historically limited and narrow perspective.

A major flaw within the discipline was the invisibility of women and the absence of their participation in anthropological research. Edwin Ardner called them “muted groups.” (Barnard, 2004, p. 145). The dominant group in society maintained control over knowledge and expression. Therefore, the muted groups were quite literally in a state of enforced silence. Women were a muted group for a prolonged period of time.

Hence, the professional field of research was dominated by male anthropologists and ethnographers. Even in the rare case that a woman was inducted, she would be subject to the training provided to men which ignored the perspective that a woman may bring to the table based on her personal experiences and worldview. In fact, this subjectivity was shunned as it was believed that women would compromise the authenticity of a study (Barnard, 2004, p. 146). Male subjectivity was not recognized as bias and was considered rational, objective and pragmatic.

Furthermore, women were also absent as objects of anthropological study. The default representation of a society came from its men.  Women were only studied in women-specific researches. However, even this research was primarily conducted by men. This led to the development of women’s anthropology to study women as active members of society and contributors to social processes (Craven, 2008, p. 100).

Therefore, it is established that women have been vastly ignored and made second-rate citizens in their societies for lack of recognition and acknowledgement of their experiences.

In colonized countries, this effect of anthropological bias was even more pronounced. The discipline of anthropology emerged in western countries of Europe. Therefore, the methodology, tools and presumptions of the discipline were modelled to accommodate and privilege those communities (Rosaldo, 1980, p. 392). Indigenous people from South America, Asia and Africa were exoticized and othered by European colonizers under the guise of research. This bias was not recognized as it benefitted the narrative of those in power.

In such countries, women faced a “double jeopardy.” Their intersecting identities doubled their oppression and furthered their invisibility.

Therefore, feminist anthropology focused on the need to recognise the diversity of experiences and the intersectionality of identity.

The Emergence and Development of Feminist Anthropology

As mentioned, feminist anthropology developed to address the defects of anthropological history. However, it did not emerge in the form that it is today. Feminist anthropology developed in three phases: Anthropology of women, anthropology of gender and feminist anthropology. (Lewin, 2006)

The anthropology of women attempted to bring women to the forefront of anthropological discourse. This advocacy existed for a long time but took off significantly in the early 1900s. Some popular anthropologists who advocated for this visibility were Peggy Golde, Louis Lamphere and Michelle Rosaldo. The argument was to reduce the inequality of social systems which put all women, especially women of colour, in a position of subjugation.

Furthermore, towards the second half of the twentieth century, after the Vietnam war, the engagement with socialist and communist philosophical material in the United States of America was on the rise. From the engagement with this philosophy and political ideology emerged the realization that the inequality of women was not reversible at the individual level but was systematic oppression caused by colonialism and perpetuated through the system of capitalism (Leacock, 1983).

This triggered a conversation around the enforced conditions and alienation of not only women but also men as well. There was also a general interrogation into the need to compartmentalize people into the binary system of gender, which is a Christian concept spread (and imposed) through western colonialization. This discourse led to the rise of the anthropology of gender. Gender roles, the imposition of the gender binary, gender identity and labels were areas of interest to anthropologists. Gayle Rubin contributed to this discussion with her research on gender politics and her critique of the system of gender.

With the rise of intersectional politics and increasingly diverse feminist movements around the world, anthropology also took on the activist role. Some anthropologists took up the title of ‘activist’ and focused their research on communities which has been unrepresented or misrepresented. (Craven, 2008)

Today, feminist anthropology is multidimensional. It is not specific to the female but incorporates religion, race, ethnicity, caste and many other labels of identity. It also has cultural, political and scientific perspectives.

Therefore, it may be concluded that feminist anthropology is no longer a branch of anthropology but an array of discourses which combine to form an anthropological lens which must be applied to the discipline as a whole.

A Feminist Perspective of Anthropological Theories

It has hence been reasoned that feminist anthropology might be used as a test to examine the applicability, validity and inclusivity of a theory. Therefore, it is important to analyze certain grand theories under this perspective and acknowledge the progressive feminist aspects and feminist critiques for or against such theories.

Two significant grand theories are Functionalism and Marxism, which have received criticism and approval respectively under the inspection of feminist anthropology. Analyzing this dichotomic critique will provide clarity into the stance of feminist anthropology in its practical application.

Functionalism is a grand theory which states that society maintains stability through an organized set of functions fulfilled by all of its parts. It explains that all social and individual needs are met through the cohesive functioning of society and the institutions within it such as family, marriage, education and even crime. Functionalism states that the role of individuals is according to the functions of the social institutions that they are a part of (Class Notes). For example, a woman would have the functional role of a wife under the institution of marriage, of a mother under the institution of family, of a professional under the institution of her workplace.

In short, this theory explains that every part of society has a function, and the interconnected contributions of social institutions undoubtedly meet the individual’s needs. By fulfilling these functions, society remains stable. To some extent, society is self-satisfactory and maintains equilibrium through its institutions.

Functionalism has been critiqued for deemphasizing the role that individuals play in shaping social processes. This is one of the key feminist critiques. Feminists argue that individuals should not be compartmentalized by their roles and status ascribed to them by the needs of society (Ardener, 1985). This perspective has justified the maintenance of male-female asymmetry under the guise of fulfilling the needs of society.

This leads to the second critique of functionalism which states that society does not have inherent needs, but the individual does. The needs of society are comprised of individual needs (Ardener, 1985). Therefore, by subjugating a certain group of people to a role (at the cost of their satisfaction) to maintain overall stability is unjustifiable. Women are often compelled to perform certain tasks and take up responsibilities because that is their “social role.” Furthermore, these roles are usually restricted to childcare, household chores and tasks within the domestic sphere because of the biological reproductive role.

Therefore, functionalism is discarded by feminists as a faulty, incomplete theory which is biased towards the worldview of dominant groups

The second grand theory is Marxism which is regarded as an important theory in feminist discourse. Many scholars believe that Marxism and feminism are harmonious.

The base of the Marxist argument is that conflict exists in society because of an imbalance in the distribution of resources. The proletariat (workers) are oppressed and exploited at the hands of the bourgeoisie (capitalists) who control the resources and are therefore in a position of greater power and authority. In order to emancipate themselves, the proletariat must disestablish the economic system which has subjugated them to such a position. In such a way, society will reach equilibrium wherein there is equal distribution instead of unequal accumulation (Class Notes).

The feminist parallels to Marxism are quite evident. Women are in a state of conflict with men and the patriarchal system which has subjugated them for centuries together. In order to liberate themselves and establish equality, women must direct their efforts towards overthrowing the patriarchy.

Furthermore, there is a branch of Marxism known as Marxist feminism which examines the ways in which women are oppressed by capitalism and private property ownership. Here, both ideologies merge to explain their interconnectedness.

Through these examples, the practical applications of the feminist lens on anthropological theory are illuminated.

A Critique of Feminist Anthropology and Personal Reflections

Feminist anthropology has played a significant role in the empowerment of minorities and in changing the landscape of the discipline as a whole. The scope of representation has also increased drastically since the second half of the twentieth century. However, anthropological research is not free from bias. Although the number of subjects of study has increased, the number of female anthropologists is still not as many as males. Women of colour are even fewer in number (Craven, 2008).

The feminist movement itself has been critiqued for being an upper-middle-class movement which catered towards the needs of white women in developed countries. In fact, early suffragettes are criticized for pitting the feminist movement against people of colour. (Craven, 2008)

Some critiques say that the feminist argument has been saturated by incorporating too many movements within it. By broadening its reach, it has fallen prey to the same forces of generalization that it was meant to critique. (Craven, 2008)

However, feminism is intended to be intersectional. The increasing scope of its theory has provided a much-needed criticality in the field of anthropology. Feminist anthropology is considered a broad umbrella, but I would also like to see it as a way of filling in the missing gaps that have gone unaccounted for until today.

Moreover, although the history of feminism may not have been all-inclusive, it is not limited to the west. Feminism has spread itself over the globe and has multiple histories, both inclusive and community-specific. Its origin is not unilateral. Therefore, feminism is not rigid. It is inclusive and diverse in its most fundamental form.

In conclusion, I believe that it is more important to criticize and abolish systematic misogyny and the oppression of women rather than to erase the efforts of an imperfect, developing feminism.

“When I was a student at Cambridge, I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with twenty-eight incisions carved in it.  “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar,” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote down. “My question to you is this – Why would a man need to mark twenty-eight days? I would suggest to you that this is a woman’s first attempt at a calendar.” It was a moment that changed my life. In that second, I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions?”

  • Sandi Toksvig


Anderson, L. (2012). Feminist Anthropology – Anthropology – Oxford Bibliographies – obo.

Retrieved 12 October 2019, from



Ardener, S. (1985). The Social Anthropology of Women and Feminist

Anthropology. Anthropology Today, 1(5), 24-26. doi:10.2307/3032826

Barnard, A. (2004). History and Theory in Anthropology. Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press.

Class Notes

Craven, C. (2008). Journal of Anthropological Research, 64(1), 99-101. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20371186

Rosaldo, M. (1980). The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-Cultural Understanding. Signs, 5(3), 389-417. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173582

Walter, L. (1995). Feminist Anthropology? Gender and Society,9(3), 272-288. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/190056

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Sanjana Sundar is a student of FLAME University, majoring in Sociology and minoring in Public Policy. Her interests include feminist theory, studying the dynamic between social institutions, and anthropological research.