[Calla Martin] The Feminist Critique- Sally Slocum and Eleanor Leacock

This text was produced by Calla Martin while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

Calla Martin

The Feminist Critique

Sally Slocum (1939- ) and Eleanor Leacock (1922-1987)

Starting in the late 1960s, feminist anthropologists began to explore the roles of women as described by anthropological data. Previous to the feminist critique of anthropology, there was an assumption of universal female subordination that pervaded anthropological theory. Early feminist scholars sought to explain why this was. Sherry Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture” is a good example of this method of study. Her article explains how women’s bodies and their functions have associated them with nature in societies around the world. Meanwhile, men are associated with cultural reproduction as in Washburn and Lancaster’s idea of “Man the Hunter,” wherein the male of the human species is the creator of culture. Feminist reaction to this theory is exemplified by articles by Sally Slocum and Eleanor Leacock. In the 1970s and 80s an increase in diversity of anthropologists brought about a rethinking of the nature of anthropology. This period of development of anthropology was essential in criticizing the academic white male point of view that had been dominant in anthropological thought.

Sally Slocum

In Sally Slocum’s introduction of her 1975 article, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology,” she sets the stage for her analysis. She asks:

· What is the nature of the human species?
· What constitutes reality/knowledge/proof?
· What is the nature of anthropological questions?

Slocum concentrates on the third question. This is pertinent because the “questions always determine and limit answers (Slocum, 2004: 476),” referring back to the first two questions. We come to see that the answers to all of these questions have been biased in anthropology. Until the 1970s, “anthropology, as an academic discipline, has been developed primarily by white Western males, during a specific period in history (Slocum, 2004: 476).” Because of limited point of view, the questions posed in anthropology have been limited, as have answers and extrapolations. With more diversity of people coming to the field, there is more critique of what has come before and many more questions presented. Slocum is bringing her critique from a feminist point of view.

To start off her critical analysis of “Man the Hunter” as conceptualized by Washburn and Lancaster in 1968, she presents her study as that of the “human animal” rather than the language “study of MAN.” She alludes to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language shapes worldview, to point out male bias in anthropology.

Man the HUNTER is the idea that males are the source of culture because hunting in bands required cooperation and organization which resulted in the evolution of language, tools, art, society, politics, etc. It assumes monogamous relationships as basic to human society, with the male as provider for his female(s) and young.

Her Argument

The idea of “man the hunter” is fundamentally flawed and one-sided because of male bias in anthropology.
Woman the Gatherer is Slocum’s theory of evolution that she draws from studies of primates, in particular her study of Rhesus monkeys. It centers on the mother-infant bond and the mother providing for her offspring. The social relationship grows as dependence of the child increases evolutionarily. Males who hunt share meat with their mothers, sisters, and brothers who gather food to share with him. This type of family is the first social construction. Monogamous relationships develop much later, if at all.

Tools/Cultural Inventions

Traditionally, anthropologists envisioned tools coming about as weapons, as illustrated by MGW’s reference to the ape-man beating another ape-man to death in a beginning scene to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Slocum argues that the first tools, or as she says, cultural inventions, were probably containers for gathering and slings for holding babies. She refers to modern hunter-gatherer’s tools as proof for this.


In Slocum’s conclusion, she admits that this article is a response to her question “what were the females doing while the males were out hunting?” She acknowledges the influence of her own feminist point of view and states that much of anthropology that has been done by women has only been recognized because it also has been from a male perspective. Slocum appeals to the need for diverse and politically aware people to bring their points of view to anthropology to balance out and critique what has come before.

Eleanor Leacock

Interpreting the Origins of Gender Inequality: Conceptual and Historical Problems.

Leacock seeks to criticize the widespread practice in anthropology of ignoring contexts of colonization and repression in the collection and analysis of ethnographic data. Leacock’s goal is also “to strike down the assumption that women aren’t equal actors in human history as much as men.”
She breaks this down from a feminist-Marxist point of view. Her first major claim is that the history of women’s roles in society have been skewed in anthropology by the portrayal of the ethnographic present of any given group as timeless, unchanged, and uninfluenced by colonialism and capitalism. In particular, she chastises French Marxists (who are supposed to think like her) for not criticizing Levi-Strauss’ idea that the exchange of women was what started human society (this is a male dominant, capitalist idea).

Leacock illustrates change in Native American society as the result of economic pressures. She also claims (with the help of Kroeber) that our understanding of Native American society as being tribal is actually a white-man’s classification. White man’s classification is equated with capitalism, and capitalism is the dominant form, the dominant way of seeing the world. As Marx and Engels say, and Leacock cites, “Man makes his own history.” She argues that relationships between men and women in primitive communism were egalitarian, but dominant history denies it. Leacock points out that most ethnographies ignore the historical background of 500 years of colonization that effect Native American groups. These type of histories explain egalitarian societies in the same terms as capitalist societies, but lacking in certain aspects. Gender hierarchy is assumed to be physiological, expressed only slightly in egalitarian society, but more-so in capitalist society. Capitalism assumes universality in human nature, but Marxist thought does not. For a Marxist, human nature is not fixed, but arises from relations to production. Gender hierarchy (according to a Marxist) is produced by the division of labor into men’s production of commodities for exchange and women’s production of labor that supported the production of commodities.

In the last pages of her article, Leacock describes the influence of capitalism on societies that are exemplified over and over again in anthropology. In ethnographic accounts, these societies may be described as autonomous and uninfluenced by colonial/capitalist politics, but Leacock gives many influences to these societies that anthropologists had chosen to ignore in the interest of salvage ethnography that fits into the capitalist ideas of human nature.


Are Julian Steward’s idea of the patrilineal band and Sally Slocum’s idea of woman the gatherer necessarily opposed? How would Leacock analyze “The Patrilineal Band?”

Leacock says that women’s domestic labor is basically a gift to the capitalists. She equates it with a sort of slave labor. Does the fact that she is not paid in money constitute as an explanation that she gets nothing from the relation? Is there anything here that Leacock doesn’t take into account? How does this reflect the social climate at the time she was writing this?

We live in a capitalist society. According to Leacock, capitalist societies create gender hierarchies. Do you agree? How does a consideration of capitalist forces influence your own ethnographic study, if at all?



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One response to “[Calla Martin] The Feminist Critique- Sally Slocum and Eleanor Leacock”

  1. When I was a graduate student in the Masters’ Anthropology program at Eastern New Mexico University in 1995, I presented a paper based on Sally Slocum’s 1975 paper, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology.” My paper was titled, “The Role of Gender Bias in the Formulation of Archaeological Theory.” It’s difficult to believe that both the professional and common understanding of human evolution is still swayed by the “Man the Hunter” paradigm myth.

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