Primary author: Marie Larcheveque

Feminist anthropology is an approach to anthropology that is focused on the role of women, as well as how this role can manifest as a difference in status and power between men and women (Walter, 1995). Anthropology as a discipline was primarily concerned with culture from a male perspective, a bias that feminist anthropology sought to correct (Kirby, 1993). Feminist anthropology can be separated into three ‘waves’ spanning from the mid-1800s to present day. The earliest wave was focused on establishing suffrage and making a record of “women’s roles in culture” (Aggarwal, 2000). There was no delineation during this time between the concepts of sex and gender. This did not come until the second wave, with the works of Margaret Mead becoming important in the formation of this distinction. Third wave, or modern feminist anthropology, continues to consider sex and gender while acknowledging differences attributed to politics, race, and social class (Aggarwal, 2000).

In terms of public health issues, feminist anthropology can serve the purpose of investigating why women have been excluded in health studies and the importance of including women. Studies of cardiovascular disease, aging, and HIV/AIDS have focused on men, excluding women (Dresser, 1992). While it is understandable the physiological differences between men and women would lead to one gender being studied at a time for continuity/control reasons as well as protecting the health of potential offspring (Dresser, 1992), studies in which women are not examined at all leave out an entire part of the population. This leads to missing pieces in our knowledge of how a disease affects human health. If women are not represented in studies, the lack of data can contribute to females lacking knowledge about how to effectively care for their own health (Mastroianni, Faden & Federman, 1994). By utilizing a feminist anthropology approach to medical studies and taking steps to gather data on women, a more complete picture of health can be formed.

Feminist anthropology can also be used as a way to view public health issues from a feminist perspective. Women's issues in public health include underrepresentation in research, sex/gender issues, and lack of diversity (Hammarstrom, 1999). An important theme in feminist anthropology is that of power. Marginalization of women is detrimental to their power; this idea can be applied to public health as well as cultural/anthropological studies (Ripper, 1999). A lack of empowerment in making health decisions can lead to a loss of control or choice. Feminist anthropology seeks to study and correct inequalities in culture; in public health, feminist anthropology seeks to correct inequalities in the health and medical fields (Rogers, 2006).

In an interesting article by Emily Martin (1991), the difference in tone of medical textbooks when describing male and female reproductive processes is analyzed. Words such as “productive”, “prolific”, and “remarkable” are used to describe spermatogenesis, while oogenesis and menstruation are described as “wasteful”, “dying”, and “scarred”. The sperm is an active, masculine force, driving towards the egg, which drifts along and waits for the sperm to activate it (Martin, 1991). While not directly affecting individual health, such disparity is something that a more feminist approach to health science would be useful in rectifying. Another example is that of health concerns in children. The domestic role traditionally assumed by women in most cultures has led to opportunities for women to essentially be blamed for health issues in their children, like obesity. These problems are sometimes looked at as ones that mothers should be responsible for solving (Rogers, 2006). Feminist anthropology can be used to explain cultural significance in data that epidemiology is not necessarily concerned with (Rogers, 2006). Feminist principles can account for potential cultural factors that affect human health, and can be beneficial in improving it as well.


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