Celebrating Feminist Anthropology on International Women’s Day
By Aislinn Sanders
In honor of this holiday, we will be highlighting the history of Feminist anthropology. The discipline did not gain notoriety until the mid-1970s. In these early days, the aim of some women anthropologists was to uncover the cross-cultural oppression that women faced. Had women always been oppressed and what indicators from the ethnographic record should be used to analyze this phenomenon? Before it became normalized for women to be anthropologists, many got their start as the wife to a prominent male anthropologist, publishing their own work alongside their husband’s during periods of ethnographic field study. Famous feminist anthropologists include the likes of Margaret Mead, Elsie Clews Parsons, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston. As the discipline became more prevalent, women began exploring topics which male anthropologists had not yet tackled: women as direct objects for field study and as distinct cultural actors, the universality of female subordination, and the roles of women in non-western and socialist cultures, among others. Now, Feminist anthropology is viewed as legitimate discipline within the field and one where a variety of topics are analyzed through a new lens. Without this discipline, we would not be able to see a shrinking gap between men and women completing anthropology degrees, teaching, and working in the field.
Another group we would like to highlight are the Underground Astronauts, the team of women cavers who assisted in the discovery of Homo naledi in the Rising Star cave system, led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger. The six chosen for this task were Hannah Morris, Marina Elliott, Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, K. Lindsay Eaves Hunter, and Elen Feuerriegel. In 21 days, the team excavated remains from at least 15 individuals, raising further questions about the use of the cave system during Homo naledi’s lifespan. Further excavations of other sections of the cave system yielded more Homo naledi remains. To this day, little is known about the hominin species in relation to others in the family tree.
Today, these women are off to exciting new projects. Hannah Morris is the founder of paleoethnobotanical consulting company Chena Consulting Services. Marina Elliot is now a researcher for Simon Fraser University in Alberta, Canada. Becca Peixotto is an instructor of anthropology at American University and serves as a Project Archaeologist for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. UW Madison alumni Alia Gurtov now designs curriculum for the tech company Stripe. K. Lindsay Eaves Hunter worked as Project Manager for the National Geographic “Umsuka” Public Paleoanthropology Project and continues to research other topics in the field. Elen Feurrigel now lectures for the Department of Anthropology at University of Washington and has ongoing research into the topic of Homo naledi.
We would also like to highlight the life and legacy of Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). A student of Franz Boas, Hurston was the first Black woman to graduate Barnard College with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. In 1936, Hurston published her seminal ethnographic piece, Mules and Men, a collection of oral history, sermons, and songs dating back to the time of slavery in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston was more than just an anthropologist; she also worked as a novelist, journalist, and librarian, among other things. Her work as an “native” anthropologist within the community she studied contributed methodological approaches which are still being used today.