Feminist Anthropology for Our Times

Every era has its story, but not always the one it deserves. How can we perceive the other stories that circulate about the present? How might a feminist perspective challenge the explanations that interpret our worlds? And how might listening to those stories help us understand why it is appealing to imagine a future that is at least feminist, if not female?

Feminist anthropologists have been asking these kinds of questions for decades. Our field was inspired by the broader feminist movement saturating the 1960s and 70s across North America. Feminist anthropologists produced convincing accounts of the diverse modes of inequality, perception, and subjectivity that shape what it means to be human. They conveyed the fundamentally porous nature of selfhood at the root of all sociality. Feminist anthropologists were at the forefront of sophisticated analyses of systems of exchange, ethics, embodiment, racism, and colonialism. A related reason for which we believe feminist analysis has now become urgently relevant in the twenty-first century: its courage.

Imagining a feminist future requires a simple yet rare insistence that truly listening to other perspectives can offer a path to answering some big questions.
Founded in 1988, the Association for Feminist Anthropology was a product of that moment. Like the movement, its members continue to have a range of intellectual and ethical commitments, but they broadly share the sense that, as Anna Tsing describes, “Feminist theory is not just for women scholars. If it is any good, it is because it works. Not because women do it” (2015). At its heart, feminist thinking does not require any particular point of view, other than being open to ambivalence, liveliness, and intersections. It requires recognizing partial and potentially contradictory commitments. To be a feminist is to eagerly embrace the difficulty and pleasure of not having all the answers.

These qualities flow from and combine in a related reason for which we believe feminist analysis has now become urgently relevant in the 21st century: its courage. While there may be no single political perspective that qualifies as “feminist,” undergirding our many voices is the conviction that asking hard questions is always better than avoiding them. Sharing with Audre Lorde the sense that “it is better to speak” (1978), feminist analysis is bold because simply asking, sometimes gently and sometimes not, for a platform for the questions we ask can still be a radical idea. If, as Mary Steedly observed, ephemerality is socially produced, then seeking a way to speak, and more importantly, to be heard, may be an endless undertaking (1993). That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Feminist interventions require the same bravery that more celebrated, more public (and often masculine), acts of heroism have involved. Perhaps it requires even more, for it demands not only not knowing what one might find, but the risk of having that discovery question the world one knows. It might require the possibility, as Saba Mahmood argued, that our analyses “may come to complicate the visions of human flourishing” that we think we know (2005, xxiv). Might we imagine a world in which cultural relativism is not the only alternative to power? Can sensing new forms of feeling or vulnerability refuse the order of things? How might we conceive of other forms of sociality? What are the conceptual grounds for justice? Whose stories count when wondering about these abstract issues?

Anthropology will soon have a new forum through which to ask these and many other audacious questions. Launching in May 2020, the journal Feminist Anthropology will be a site for the kind of scholarship for which our field is rightly known: listening to ethnographic particulars; inverting philosophical wisdoms we think we know; and ultimately asking how we might flourish differently. These questions are and are not about gender. Putting gender at the center of the analytical frame can demonstrate the limits of our existing stories, sometimes leading us to realize that gender is but one kind of authority. They can potentially inspire us to reconsider the relationship between the particular and the general, the ethnographic and the theoretical. These perspectives should travel on to anthropology, the academy and the world beyond. We envision that Feminist Anthropology will be a generous and rigorous community through which to ask incisive, inclusive questions.

Fortunately, we do not have to take these steps in a vacuum. For many senior feminist scholars, the conditions of the present are familiar. For 23 years, feminist anthropologists published their analyses and accounts in Voices. Rooted in the idea that women’s voices mattered, it ranged from newsletter to academic publication. Voices was a valuable venue for relaying what might otherwise have gone unsaid by offering a place for practical stories of academic development to early versions of vanguard scholarship. Although the last issue was published in January 2018, it remains a cherished piece of the feminist anthropological story.

Trusting our stories is a fundamental component of being feminist, and anthropologists are very good at doing that.

Feminist Anthropology will be led by two of our field’s esteemed scholars, Professors Dána-Ain Davis and Sameena Mulla. They will courageously guide the provocative conversations currently happening in our diverse worlds. They will create a journal that can recognize how the founding scholarship in feminist anthropology inspired or even demanded the kinds of research that scholars now produce. Our field is full of creative and agitated thinkers who feed their ideas by challenging and supporting each other intellectually. We envision this journal will be a home for some of the unflinching conversations that we have all been having in other venues over the past decade.

Imagining a feminist future requires a simple yet rare insistence that truly listening to other perspectives can offer a path to answering some big questions. Join us.

Carla Jones is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and president of the Association for Feminist Anthropology.

Jennifer Wies is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Ball State University and president-elect of the Association for Feminist Anthropology.

Cite as: Jones, Carla and Jennifer Wies. 2019. “Feminist Anthropology for Our Times.” Anthropology News website, August 26, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1243

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