AnthroBites: Feminist Anthropology

AnthroBites is a series from the AnthroPod team, designed to make anthropology more digestible. Each episode tackles a key concept, text, or theme, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

Our guest for this episode is Christa Craven, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The College of Wooster. Craven sat down with contributing editor Siobhan McGuirk to discuss the pasts and present of feminist anthropology. Check out the companion post to this episode, part of the “Pedagogical Soundings” collaboration between AnthroPod and the Teaching Tools section of the Cultural Anthropology website.

Further Resources

Key Figures and Texts Mentioned in this Episode

Learn More about Feminist Anthropology


AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. This episode was produced by Siobhan McGuirk. Special thanks to Arielle Milkman for her role as Executive Producer. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at [email protected]

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Music: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.


Siobhán McGuirk: Welcome, Dr. Craven!

Christa Craven: Thank you for having me!

SM: To start off with, could you give us a brief rundown into the broad question of "what is feminism"?

CC: So, some of the things that I think are central to feminism are thinking about equity and justice. There are lots of different kinds of feminism, when we think historically, when we think cross-culturally, as well as even in a contemporary sense. We can think about liberal feminists fighting for voting equality, we can look towards transnational feminisms, and black feminisms-different kinds of focus, but always centered on equity and justice. In recent years, feminism has also become kind of a buzzword, and something that's popular for many people to claim. And one of the concerns that I have, as a feminist anthropologist, is that oftentimes it becomes synonymous with this largely white and wealthy statement of "I love myself, I love my body and therefore I'm a feminist;" this very individualized idea of rights and feminism. And I think most feminists who think of themselves in a politically engaged way would see that as falling short of the goals of feminism that focus on collective engagement, and which focus on looking towards, and working towards, equity and justice in communities beyond your own, beyond yourself. It's not just about accepting yourself.

SM: I think that you're certainly revealing the long history of feminist action as being orientated towards social justice, but also raising that important point that that justice has to be for everyone if it's really to be meaningful. So, how has feminism impacted anthropology?

CC: Absolutely. You know, when we look back, many people claim a variety of female anthropologists-in the late 1800s and early 1900s we have Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Mead, who didn't identify themselves as feminists but whose work has very much contributed to the feminist cannon. Then in the 1970s we have what Micaela Di Leonardo called "the bibles of feminist anthropology" come out. In the mid-70s, we have: Toward an Anthropology of Women and Women, Culture and Society. So, feminism is very much influencing the discipline, certainly by that point. And I'd say that it's probably more of a convergence, that it's not necessarily that parts of feminism influenced anthropology and parts of anthropology influenced feminism, but there was actually a kind of confluence between the two on some level. So, you get these sources that are frequently cited-the "bibles" of feminist anthropology. Another one that is frequently assigned in classes is Judith Stacey, who wrote "Can there be a feminist ethnography?". It's one of those pieces that really helps us understand how to move away from a "sisters under the skin" idea of feminism, and move towards something that is more about power, and thinking about ethics, and the kind of work that I would hope contemporary anthropologists really want to engage with.

SM: Could you say a little bit more about this idea of a "sisters under the skin," or maybe: what was the field, or the discipline, of anthropology like before these interventions, before these "bibles" as you say, came onto the scene?

CC: Well I think Judith Stacey's point-and she's writing in the mid- to late-80s-is that when we think about ethnography and about breaking down the power hierarchy between the researcher and the researched, oftentimes feminists saw this as, "because I'm a woman and because you're a woman, somehow we have this shared understanding of the world, and of our experiences and struggles in the world." And Judith Stacey really asks us to question that, to think about the differences among women-and among men for that matter-that we can't make those kinds of assumptions. In the 1980s and 1990s, we see a lot of efforts to "decolonize the field," like Faye Harrison's Decolonizing Anthropologyreally encourages us to kind of rethink who is contributing to the field, and how, and what kind of biases are coming in based on those contributions.

SM: Right, absolutely. And how would you say that theories that bring in the idea of intersectionality-how have they been used by feminist anthropologists?

CC: When we think about people's experiences, we have to think of them on an intersectional level. We have to think about the ways that race, and class, and nation are intersecting with gender and sexuality. But another theorist that I think is really important to feminist anthropology is Chandra Mohanty, who wrote Feminism Without Borders, and in that she reflects on some of her earlier essays, like "Under Western Eyes." She outlines, I mean she really advocates for a feminist solidarity, in terms of the ways that we think about feminism when we're talking about transnational experiences. She really wants us to walk away from the "feminist-as-tourist" model, where you only put in a week on transnational feminism. She wants us to work more from feminist solidarity, in looking at ways that we're interconnected, looking at ways that we are also implicated in the struggles of women in various areas of the world: what does it mean that we wear clothes, or use electronics, that require low-wage labor that's often done by women in different areas of the world? And she really encourages us to move away from thinking of Western saviors and tourists, to thinking more about feminist solidarity. I think that's become very important for anthropologists to think about in the 21st century.

SM: Absolutely. And the people that you're talking about have written influential works that really emphasize the role of individuals and of collectives in making social change-these aren't just theories about the world. And your two recent collections, Feminist Ethnography and Feminist Activist Ethnography, written with Dána-Ain Davis, they are sort of pushing that idea further: that you have the theory and the activism, or the practice, but those two things can't really be pulled apart. What does that mean for young anthropologists-or not so young anthropologists-who are thinking about how to put a feminist practice behind their research, and behind their writing?

CC: Absolutely. And I think when we think about feminism as a collective enterprise-you know, both of those texts were designed with that in mind. Particularly the textbook-I mean the irony is that neither Dána-Ain nor I use textbooks in our classes and here we were writing one-but we thought about it and we didn't want our words to be the only ones that were in it, which is why we interviewed so many people. We actually approached the textbook in some ways like you would a feminist ethnography, and so that idea of collective, that some of the voices contradict each other, some of the voices chime in and support each other-there's different ways that different people put their stamp on the book. Which, to me, was exciting as an example of that collective work. One of the things that we did was that we asked everyone we interviewed for the book: "what advice would you pass along?" So, there's a lot of rich advice there. When I think about my own [advice], I think it is focusing on communities, not focusing on individual empowerment, but focusing, as an anthropologist, on: "how can I raise the volume of individual voices that might not otherwise be heard?" And how can we do that in a way that gets us thinking about social justice and equity in communities more broadly than our own personal experience-and maybe more broadly than the individual experience of a particular participant.

SM: Absolutely. I'd like to hear a little bit about how your own work has led you to the point where you felt, "you know, we need to be teaching our students better, teaching ourselves better within the discipline, about how to do feminist ethnography, and feminist activist ethnography"?

CC: Well one of the things that Dána-Ain and I did strategically was that we used the term "activist-scholars" rather than "scholar-activists," and our reason for that was that many of us come to the field with prior commitments. I think of myself as a college student, and when I went to college I realized a lot of inequities in the world that I was unaware of. And I wanted to change the world-I really wanted to think about in what ways could I contribute that would lessen the kinds of inequalities that I was now newly seeing. So, I knew in college when I walked into an Anthropology class-Cultural Anthro with Maria Vesperi-and she started talking and I went, "wow!" But it was something that really inspired me, the ways that anthropologists look differently at the world.

One of the things that Maria did for me was that she recommended that I go to the American Anthropological Association conference, and so I headed up to Washington DC. It was 1995. I had very diligently decided all the sessions I wanted to go to, and one of them was a 25-year retrospective on those "bibles of feminist anthropology." So, being the diligent undergraduate student, I saw in the front row, and I was taking notes, and I saw Sherry Ortner, and I saw all these people that I had read. And then someone I didn't know got up. Lynn Bolles got up. And the paper that she gave… like, I knew at that point that I wanted to become an anthropologist, but this was what helped me understand how I wanted to be an anthropologist. She only cited black women in the paper, and she made the point that these early works in feminist anthropology were largely by white women, and that we didn't hear the insights that were being offered by women of color. So she was self-conscious in terms of who she cited, but she also really put the onus on us to find the kind of research that's going to give us new insights about the field. Not only to continue citing the cannon that we've been taught, and that we have the power and the possibility of actually breaking that cycle. That really inspired me because it made me think about how I wanted to approach the field and how I wanted the research that I was doing to be political, so I didn't want my activism and my commitment to reproductive justice and reproductive rights to be something that was wholly separate from the academic work that I was doing-in fact, I really wanted to see those converge.

SM: Great, excellent. So, you mentioned an engagement with Lynn Bolles from 1995. Now we're in 2017, and some people might make the argument that feminism isn't necessary anymore; that we've got nowhere else to go. What would you say now, for anthropologists, why should they keep this kind of praxis in mind as they do their work?

CC: So, I think that there are two things-at least when I think about myself and my own work-reasons that I think feminism and an attention to social justice is so key at this time, within anthropology and other disciplines. The first is the ability to be self-critical about the work that we're doing, and to constantly question and be thinking-as we design projects, as we engage in projects with a variety of participants, and as we write up that work-to be in dialogue with ourselves about ethics, and power, and privilege. Particularly the privilege we have as researchers to be wielding the pen, or being the one at the keyboard, who chooses what kind of stories get told. The other is the engagement that we talked about earlier, and talking about the possibilities for public anthropology. Of course, this isn't new-I mean Margaret Mead was kind of disparaged for being the popularizer of anthropology. But when we think about, AAA Presidents over the past 15 years, with Louise Lamphere, and Leith Mullings, and Alisse Waterston, have all been talking about the importance of public anthropology, and the importance of getting our work beyond the ivory tower. I think that that is also something that comes out of a feminist engagement that sees itself as politicized and engaged in the work that we do, how we conduct that work, and also how we get it out to broader publics.

SM: Great, and what kind of techniques, or approaches to research dissemination would you say have got a feminist hue?

CC: Again, thinking about advice in terms of production, I would want students to get comfortable and familiar with as many writing styles as possible, because I think there are incredibly important theoretical works that have come out of feminist anthropology, but there are also really important Op-Eds, and public kinds of anthropology-you know, that's creative writing, it's political advocacy and working on policy briefs, and doing that kind of work. But the more different kinds of styles we can get ourselves comfortable with, the more potential audiences and publics we can reach with our work.

SM: Great, very rousing and important words, Dr. Craven. Thank you so much for talking to us at AnthroBites today.

CC: And thank you so much, Siobhán, this has been a real pleasure.