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Feminist archaeology employs a feminist perspective in interpreting past societies. It often focuses on gender, but also considers gender in tandem with other factors, such as sexuality, race, or class. Feminist archaeology has critiqued the uncritical application of modern, Western norms and values to past societies. It is additionally concerned with switching a perceived androcentric bias in the structuring disciplinary norms of archaeology with a gynocentric bias within the profession.
Feminist archaeology initially emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s, along with other objections to the epistemology espoused by the processual school of archaeological thought, such as symbolic and hermeneutic archaeologies. Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector’s 1984 paper Archaeology and the Study of Gender summed up the feminist critique of the discipline at that time: that archaeologists were unproblematically overlaying modern-day, Western gender norms onto past societies, for example in the sexual division of labor; that contexts and artifacts attributed to the activities of men, such as projectile point production and butchering at kill sites, were prioritized in research time and funding; and that the very character of the discipline was constructed around masculine values and norms. For example, women were generally encouraged to pursue laboratory studies instead of fieldwork (although there were exceptions throughout the history of the discipline) and the image of the archaeologist was centered on the rugged, masculine, “cowboy of science”. In 1991, two publications marked the emergence of feminist archaeology on a large scale: the edited volume Engendering Archaeology, which focused on women in prehistory, and a thematic issue of the journal Historical Archaeology, which focused on women and gender in post-Columbian America. Outside the Americas, feminist archaeology enjoyed an earlier emergence and greater support among the greater archaeological community.
Notable challenges raised by early feminist archaeologists have concerned hunting and stone tool-making, among many other topics. The Man the Hunter paradigm in anthropology, named after a symposium given in the 1960s by some of the most prominent names in archaeology, bifurcated the hominid sexual division of labor along male and female sexes. Males were in charge of hunting, and presumably through this activity developed important evolutionary traits, such as increased brain size. Meanwhile, females stayed at home and raised the young. An assumption behind this model is that women were constrained from certain activities due to decreased mobility resulting from pregnancy and their role in raising young children. This model has been critiqued by feminist anthropologists, as underplaying the evolutionary importance of women in favor of portraying them strictly as passive objects of reproduction and nothing more. Adrienne Zihlman, tracing the evolutionary achievements ascribed to males as hunters, pointed out that female gathering activities could just as easily account for such adaptations.
Joan Gero challenged androcentric explanations of tool-making on several levels. First, the common assumption that tool-making was almost exclusively associated with men was almost certainly false; at the least, women were far more likely to produce their own tools as needed in domestic contexts rather than wait for a man to come along and do it for them. The argument behind this assumption, that men possess greater upper-body strength, was dismissed by Gero, who pointed out physical strength is not an imperative quality in someone skilled at making stone tools. Additionally, Gero pointed out the great emphasis in research time and money towards studies concerned with the most “masculine” of stone tools, such as projectile points, while stone tools likely made and used by women, for example utilized flakes, have been relatively ignored.
Since the early feminist critiques of archaeology, gender has gained enormous popularity within the discipline. The label “feminist” has not been embraced by most archaeologists, however. A split between gender and feminist archaeologies formed during the 1990s. Gender archaeology has become a wide umbrella, including, but not limited to, feminist work that employs queer theory, practice theory, and performance theory, among others. Many archaeologists engaged in gender research avoid the label of “feminist,” largely due to the perceived negative connotations of the word. Others within the discipline have an oversimplified understanding of feminist archaeology's history and aims, and as a consequence mistakenly conflate it with postmodernism. Some archaeologists have argued against the continued incorporation of feminist thought, which is inherently political, into archaeological studies of gender. Few works in gender archaeology have actively engaged in challenging patriarchal power structures beyond rectifying androcentric histories. Feminist archaeology engages in challenging and changing interpretive frameworks employed by archaeologists: “Feminism is a politics aimed at changing gender-based power relations.” Noted feminist philosopher Alison Wylie delineates several guidelines imperative for conducting feminist archaeology:
In contrast, gender archaeology not employed by feminists lacks such characteristics. Gender is currently a common topic of study in archaeology among non-feminists. Such studies focus on identifying gendered activities and material culture and on the gender roles of past peoples, but do not present themselves in an overtly political way. Non-feminist archaeologists are less compelled to position themselves within their work, or reflect on how their position affects their work. Investigating gender independent of feminism, however, elides the aims of early studies and represents gender and sex in a conceptually deficient manner.
Feminist archaeologists continue to challenge archaeological norms and expand research into new intellectual territories. They argue for the incorporation of alternative forms of knowledge and representation; for example, black and Indigenous epistemologies have been employed by feminist archaeologists. There continues to be a feminist critique of the masculine character and organization of archaeology.
One important realm of research for feminist archaeologists, along with some non-feminists, is de-centering Westernized forms of history in favor of privileging alternative conceptions and interpretations of the past, and exploring non-traditional ways of conveying knowledge. A growing body of work involves involvement with descendant communities, giving them a voice in archaeological investigations and interpretations of the past. The public demand for allowing descendant communities a voice in the African Burial Ground controversy highlighted the importance of this kind of work. Parallels have been drawn between feminist archaeology and Indigenous archaeology, focusing on how both work to break down the male, white, middle-class, Western monopoly to accessing knowledge about the past. This type of work helps to de-center the privileged position of Western knowledge without removing its relevance.
Additionally, feminist archaeologists have engaged in the use of fiction to help access the past. This has taken the form of plays, as seen in Red-Light Voices, based on letters and diaries by early 20th-century prostitutes to explore prostitution. Another example is seen in Laurie Wilkie’s fictional worker involved in the Federal Writers' Project, interjected in her archaeological study of an African-American midwife in the post-emancipation South. Janet D. Spector interpreted the meaning behind a single artifact through a fictional narrative in What This Awl Means. Narrative has been argued as an effective means by which archaeologists can create multivocal and more broadly accessible interpretations and presentations. The use of storytelling “demonstrate[s] how narrative is a powerful tool for bringing texture, nuance, and humanity to women’s experiences as evidenced through archaeology”).
A common analytical technique employed by feminist (and some non-feminist) archaeologists is intersectional analysis, which, following the assertions of black feminists leading third-wave feminism in the U.S., maintains that gender cannot be accessed by itself but must be studied in conjunction with other forms of identity. In historical archaeology the linkage between gender, race, and class has been increasingly explored, but other aspects of identity, notably sexuality, have been examined as well in relation to gender. Intersectional analysis has not been limited to feminist archaeology, as illustrated by the prevalent use of gender-race-class as a means of exploring identity by historical archaeologists. Although many such studies have focused on white, middle-class women of the recent Anglo-American past, the articulation of gender with other aspects of identity is starting to be applied to Native American women and African Americans. The work of Kathleen Deagan on Spanish colonial sites in the US and Caribbean has pioneered a movement of study of gender in the Spanish colonies. The use of black feminist work, which calls to attention the inherent connectivity between gender and class in the U.S. has been an important step in advancing the use of intersectional analysis in archaeology. The intersectional approach faced a lot of “oppositional consciousness” that intervened in the flow of hegemonic feminist theory” and challenges in crossing the boundaries and negotiating with the terms of belonging in the community.
Archaeological studies of domestic sites have been particularly affected by ongoing feminist work. The long-standing trend in archaeology to associate women with domestic spaces, placed in opposition to the association with men and “public” spaces, has been a continuous locus of feminist research. Since the advent of the new millennium, there has been a shift away from such dichotomized spatial separation of gender. In historical archaeology, feminist archaeologists have been crucial to widening the definition of what constitutes a household from a familial model based on Western norms, such as household archaeology projects studying brothels and fraternities. By engaging with broader household literature, archaeologists have begun to re-conceive household, long considered autonomous analytical units, as political spaces, occupied by social actors occupying different social positions shaped by gender, race, age, occupation, socioeconomic status, and so on.
Feminist concern has been primarily with women; however, emerging concern with the exploration and intricacies of masculinities in archaeology is rising. Masculine identity constructs and social reproduction of normative masculinity are some of the topics that have been addressed by a limited number of archaeologists. This area of study in general, however, remains relatively unexplored.