Rethinking Gender Assumptions

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we read section seven, “On Anthropology and Gender” and used it to detail how anthropology has been at the forefront of rethinking gender assumptions:

This material was for The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after finishing the section “On Colonialism and Anthropological ‘Others’.” Next we began the section on Queering
The selections in this lecture include:

  • Eleanor Burke Leacock, “Introduction to The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan, by Frederick Engels” (1972)
  • Sylvia Junko Yanagisako & Jane Fishburne Collier, “Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender and Kinship” (1987)
  • Ifi Amadiume, Excerpt from Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (1987)
  • Gloria Anzaldúa, “La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a new consciousness” (1987)
  • Philippe Bourgois, “In Search of Masculinity: Violence, Respect and Sexuality among Puerto Rican Crack Dealers in East Harlem” (1996)

Summary: Rethinking Gender Assumptions

Eleanor Leacock: Class & Oppression

One pioneer in rethinking gender assumptions in anthropology was Eleanor Leacock. She asked what explains the fact that men are often dominant in societies, arguing that it does not come from biology or childbirth, but rather from “the monogamous family as an economic unit, at the heart of class society” (180).

Leacock combined Marxian and feminist literature to discuss private property and how the nuclear family as the economic unit puts women in a more subordinate position. She drew attention to the importance of working-class women (181), emphasizing that “all oppressive relations are interconnected” (181). Leacock urged us to recognize how race, class, and gender are interconnected and to make this “organizationally meaningful” (182) instead of falling for capitalist gimmicks that exploit feminism to sell products. She warned: “The media will continue to exploit this as a gimmick that serves at the same time to sell cigarettes and shampoo” (182).

Philippe Bourgois: Structural Inequalities & Misogyny

In his book In Search of Respect, Philippe Bourgois explores the violent misogyny among the people he worked with in East Harlem. He argues that this is not simply due to men or Puerto Rican culture, but rather a result of larger structural phenomena, such as the disappearance of factory jobs that provided a patriarchal figure to support the family.

Bourgois writes:

The men in these pages often behave in cruel and violent ways, not only against the women and children in their lives, but also against themselves. While the crack dealers are victims from a social structural perspective, they are also agents of destruction in their daily lives. They wreak havoc on their loved ones and on their larger community. (201)

This of course does not excuse or justify the behavior but is rather an attempt to explain it. The search for respect becomes destructive to themselves and their communities, based on a romanticized ideal that is now impossible to achieve.

Ifi Amadiume: Gender Roles & Kinship in African Society

In her groundbreaking book Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (1987), Ifi Amadiume argues that gender in an African society was not necessarily equal to kinship classifications. People could be biologically female but take on a male role, which would be recorded in the kinship system as having a male role.

Amadiume demonstrates this through the example of the “male daughter.” She writes, “Because of this absence of close relatives, when her father became ill, he decided to recall her from her marital home and allow her to remain in his house as a male. She would then have the status of a son and be able to inherit her father’s property” (190-191).

Amadiume challenges the formalist anthropological approach that “sons inherit their father’s land and daughters do not. Therefore, women do not own land” (190-191). She demonstrates that this can be socially altered.

Gloria Anzaldúa: Embracing the Mestiza Identity

In contrast to the United States’ historical emphasis on strict racial categories, some Latin American countries have celebrated the idea of the mestizo, or mixed heritage, as a national identity. However, this has been criticized by some as a nationalist attempt to make everyone mixed on the way to being more White.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s work takes a different approach. She speaks of the mestiza, not the male mestizo nationalist ideal. Anzaldúa writes:

The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode. (100)

Anzaldúa’s perspective is decidedly non-nationalistic, as she states:

As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland casts me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover. As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; But I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races. (102)

She celebrates the borderlands, the mixed places where people move back and forth, as something to be proud of and as the future. “En unas pocas centurias,” she writes, “the future will belong to the mestiza” (104).

Recap: Rethinking Gender Assumptions

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we read section seven, “On Anthropology and Gender” and used it to detail how anthropology has been at the forefront of rethinking gender assumptions:

This material was for The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after finishing the section “On Colonialism and Anthropological ‘Others’.” Next we began the section on Queering


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