Anthropologists of the early 20th century presumed that social and political differences or divisions between men and women were “natural.” Pioneering anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry, who did field work among Australian Aborigines in the 1930s, represented women as “active agents.” Despite the fact that their material reveals that women are not subordinate, they are, however, generally subordinate to men. Margaret Mead, who also started fieldwork in the 1930s, while not concerned with subordination, demonstrated that the ideals of femininity and masculinity vary greatly between groups. His ideas continue to be relevant.
Thanks to the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, a younger generation began to question male orthodoxies in social anthropology, both in fieldwork traditions and in literature. An important distinction that began to be made was that between sex as a biological die and gender as a cultural variable. In this way, it was argued that divisions of labor and different roles assigned on the basis of gender were no longer accepted as biologically inevitable. While sex at birth is relatively fixed, the meanings and behaviors associated with physical and sexual differences were seen as fluid and varied across cultures. In the 1990s, the dichotomy was considered less clear,
Starting in the mid-1970s, several important volumes of women anthropologists made women more visible and also raised key questions about gender theory and anthropology. Contrary to later cartoons in later literature, this strategy never involved women being studied separately from men and gender. There was also no suggestion that women could be studied separately from men, nor did the material suggest that women were universally equal. The vast intercultural range of the first volumes already showed differences between women. Although masculinity is only being studied in detail recently, gender studies aim to explore the full ranges of gender categories, including androgen,
The impact of gender studies is also evident in relation to fieldwork. Early texts by women like Elenore Smith Bowen and Hortense Powdermaker demonstrated the importance of personal experience, individual identity, and social relationships in the writing of anthropology. Once marginalized, these texts explored ideas that are now fundamental to the discipline.