, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 1–33

Introduction: Feminist Theories and Archaeology


    • Department of Sociology and AnthropologyOakland University
    • Peabody Museum of Archaeology and EthnologyHarvard University

DOI: 10.1007/s11759-011-9169-5

Cite this article as:
Spencer-Wood, S.M. Arch (2011) 7: 1. doi:10.1007/s11759-011-9169-5


This journal issue developed out of a desire to increase the use of feminist theory in archaeology, leading me to ask Laurajane Smith of York University to co-organize a symposium on the topic for the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin in July 2008. The impacts of major feminist theories on constructions of the past and archaeological thinking are discussed, emphasizing how they implicitly or explicitly influenced other articles in this journal issue.

Key words

Feminist theoryGenderArchaeology


Ce numéro de revue a été développé à partir de la volonté d’accroître l’utilisation de la théorie féministe en archéologie, ce qui me conduit à demander à Laurajane Smith de l’Université York de s’associer à l’organisation d’un colloque sur le sujet pour le Congrès mondial d’archéologie à Dublin, en juillet 2008. Les effets des grandes théories féministes sur les constructions de la pensée passée et archéologiques sont discutées, en soulignant la façon dont ils influencent, implicitement ou explicitement, d’autres articles dans ce numéro de revue.


Esta edición de la revista nace desde el deseo de fomentar el uso de la teoría feminista en la arqueología, un deseo que me impulsó a pedir a Laurajane Smith, de la Universidad de York, la organización conjunta de un simposio sobre el tema para el Congreso Mundial Arqueológico que tuvo lugar en Dublín en julio de 2008. Se comenta la repercusión que las principales teorías feministas han tenido en la interpretación del pasado y en el pensamiento arqueológico, haciendo hincapié en su influencia, tanto implícita como explícita, en otros artículos de esta edición de la revista.

“Feminist scholarship in archaeology, demanding fundamental alterations in basic assumptions, first requires a painstaking retooling of definitions, data sets, textual sources, and functional assignments.” (Conkey and Gero 1991:7).

Purpose and Organization

This journal issue developed out of a desire to increase the use of feminist theory in archaeology, leading me to ask Laurajane Smith of York University to co-organize a symposium on the topic for the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin in July 2008. As a whole this special issue demonstrates how feminist theories are used in archaeology to raise new research questions that lead to uncovering new data, which often implicitly critique, deconstruct, and correct research biases produced by western patriarchal culture, such as androcentrism, sexism, and heterosexism. Often critiques are implicit in feminist remedial research, but in this journal issue many are made explicit. The articles show how feminist critical theories and research provide new insights into the androcentric construction of the past in archaeological research and heritage management. The critical foundation of feminist theory needs to be retained to avoid falling into non-feminist gender research. Failure to deconstruct patriarchy results in its reification through archaeology. While some feminist theories focus on analyses and deconstructions of patriarchy, many offer both critiques of, and advocate remedies for, patriarchal inequalities. Feminist theories of the causes and remedies for women’s oppression under patriarchy increase our understanding of the contributions to feminist archaeology by articles in this issue.

In archaeology feminist theory is often treated as singular when in fact there are a very large number of different feminist theories. My hope is to increase the explicit use of a diversity of feminist theories to gain new insights into the gendered past. However, given the fact that whole books have been written about the great diversity in feminist theories, this article is largely limited to major theoretical contexts of contributions to feminist critiques, theories, and research by the authors in this journal issue. Because this is my only article in this issue, it combines more in-depth summaries of my contributions to feminist theories and research that are relevant to other articles, with briefer summaries of theoretical aspects of articles in this issue by other authors.

The organization of this article is by type of feminist theory, to focus on the theoretical contexts for increasing comparative understanding of the contributions by authors in this issue. The theories are logically organized from second-wave structuralist-feminist theories that analyse how patriarchal structures produce inequalities, followed by first-wave egalitarian Enlightenment feminist theories of women’s natural equality and social agency in changing patriarchy, to third-wave feminist theories analyzing the diversity in gender and sexual ideologies, identities, roles, relationships and power dynamics due to intersections of gender and/or sexuality with class, race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc. Organization by type of feminist theory is the most logical way to avoid many repetitions of the same theory when it has been used implicitly or explicitly in different articles. A primary goal of this article is to make explicit the theoretical contexts of the articles, since they are often implicit. Articles can implicitly draw on more than one kind of theory, so different aspects of some articles are briefly discussed under different relevant feminist theories. Greater insight is gained by combining feminist theories because each theory is partial in critiquing, analyzing and deconstructing only some aspects of patriarchy.

A second goal of this article is to emphasize the contributions of historical archaeologists to feminist research and theory because their contributions have often been neglected in publications purporting to summarize all of feminist archaeology, but including very little if any historical archaeology. Because prehistoric archaeology is the dominant subfield in archaeology, it is often inaccurately equated with all of archaeology. This is similar to the common use of men’s experiences and viewpoints to represent whole societies, neglecting the different experiences and viewpoints of women. In archaeology prehistoric archaeologists are the men, while historical archaeologists are the women, whose experiences and viewpoints, and contributions are often neglected or overlooked in publications with supposedly inclusive titles about feminist archaeology. Since prehistoric archaeology has received the vast majority of emphasis in feminist archaeology to date, this article is remedial and corrective in emphasizing contributions from historical archaeology. This is analogous to remedial feminist research bringing out women’s experiences and viewpoints because previous research focused on men. The long-term feminist goal is more balanced research including both genders. Remedial highlighting of feminist historical archaeology is the first step to developing more balanced coverage of both historical and prehistoric archeology in publications labeled as feminist archaeology.

Distinguishing Feminist and Gender Research

Many archaeologists have substituted the term “gender” for feminist research, but not all gender research is feminist. Feminist research focuses on gender power dynamics and draws on feminist theories of the causes and remedies for patriarchal inequalities. As noted by Nelson (this issue) feminist theories are needed to raise new research questions and alternative perspectives by critiquing androcentric biases in non-feminist theories and research. The patriarchal gender dichotomies underlying sexist biases are deconstructed, leading to feminist remedial research that usually invalidates androcentric assumptions. Feminist archaeology further critiques and analyses the legitimation of patriarchy through the monolithic projection of modern binary gender stereotypes into the past, justifying women’s devaluation and invisibility by falsely claiming women have always been innately biologically inferior, subordinate, and therefore insignificant (Spencer-Wood 1992:98–99; 2007:29–30). Cantwell and Wall (this issue) cite Brumfiel and Robin (2008:9) for pointing to the importance of challenging “implicitly held assumptions about gender…that go unchallenged precisely because they are so central, naturalized, and ingrained in our society.”

NON-feminist gender research has analysed past gender roles by unproblematically assuming they were the same as patriarchal gender stereotypes (Spencer-Wood 2007:29–30). The resulting reification of the universality of patriarchy is called the “add women and stir” approach that feminists eschew (mentioned by Blackmore, Cantwell and Wall and Nelson in this issue) through the crucial first step of deconstruction of patriarchal gender dichotomies (as noted by Yentsch in this issue). The need for deconstruction is illustrated by the common assumption that only male warriors are buried with swords, arrowheads, and knives, and only male traders are buried with weights and measures. However, burials sexed in feminist research found that women warriors buried with weapons were prevalent in some societies, such as the Sauromatians and Irish warrior queens (Davis-Kimball with Behan 2002:112–32, 186–211), and many leaders previously assumed to be male have been identified as female (Nelson 1997, this issue). Further, Norse female burials have been excavated with weights and scales, identifying women as traders (Stalsberg 1991, 2001). Cantwell and Wall (this issue) discuss documentary and archaeological evidence of women traders among Native Americans and Dutch colonists in the New Netherlands of America.

Feminist Critical Theories: Post-structural Queering and Deconstruction of Patriarchy

Most feminist theories began with critiques of some aspects of patriarchy or previous feminist theories that retained heterosexist, racist, ethnocentric and/or class biases. Feminists were undertaking post-structural deconstructions queering patriarchy long before the existence of the words feminism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, or queer theory. This section juxtaposes the scientific-feminist epistemological discourse of critique and correction of androcentric biases with the discourses of feminist post-structuralism, deconstruction, and third-wave queer theory, to provide greater insight into feminist critiques (Lorber 2001). Feminist critiques, theories, and research are post-structuralist because their purpose has always been to destabilize and change patriarchy by critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal gender dichotomies legitimating male dominance. In scientific-feminist discourse, this journal issue demonstrates the importance of first critiquing sexist research biases in order to correct them with feminist remedial research. Androcentric biases center around the projection into the past of the heteronormative dichotomy assuming that all women were subordinate, passive, irrational, domestic, insignificant wives of dominant, significant, active, rational, public men. Further, this patriarchal dichotomy between women and men was assumed to be biologically determined (Spencer-Wood 1992:99, 1995). Some historical archaeologists have critiqued constructions of the past conforming to this Victorian separate-spheres binary gender ideology (Rotman 2006; Russell 2005; Seifert 1991; Spencer-Wood 1991b, 1992). Each different feminist theory critiques, deconstructs, and corrects different culturally-constructed patriarchal gender oppositions that justified male dominance by valorizing supposedly masculine traits while devaluing supposedly feminine traits.

Using queer theory discourse in the expansive way suggested by Blackmore (this issue), many feminist theories can be viewed as queering, or questioning, the dominant patriarchal ideology by inverting its definitions of masculinity and femininity and normative gender power dynamics. Heretical 19th-century first-wave feminist theories turned their world upside down by arguing that women were the equals of public-rational men, challenging the existence of supposedly innate patriarchal distinctions between men and women (Donovan 2001:17–47). Both first-wave and second-wave feminist theories analyzed patriarchal inequalities to challenge them in feminist movements that rejected the claimed normativity of patriarchy and instead portrayed its inequalities as unfair, deviant, or queer. Third-wave feminist diversity theory critiqued, deconstructed, and queered second-wave structuralist-feminist totalizing theory by showing that it represented the experiences of white middle-class women as the whole society. Third-wave social constructionist feminist theory has critiqued and queered, or inverted, the traditional concept of biological sex by arguing that it is as culturally constructed as gender (Lorber 2001:179–194).

Many feminist theories have critiqued, deconstructed, inverted, and queered previously assumed patriarchal biases in ideologies and theories. In scientific-feminist discourse, articles in this journal issue implicitly or explicitly critique some sexist biases, followed by feminist remedial research to correct those biases. The discourses of feminist post-structural deconstructionism and queer theory further reveal that articles in this journal issue deconstruct, queer, and destabilize patriarchy by revealing past inversions of patriarchal ideology and practices that have been widely accepted or taken for granted as natural, normative, or universal. Feminist research is essential in analysing how women and men changed patriarchy from the past into the present.

Peeling the Androcentric Onion

Feminist theories have deconstructed ever deeper patriarchal biases, assumptions and dichotomies that pervade all aspects of western culture, from government to science and epistemology. The structural embedding of androcentric biases from surface discourse to deeper levels of the construction of knowledge can be visualized in analogy to the structure of an onion. Each layer of the onion is peeled by feminist critique and deconstruction to reveal ever deeper layers of sexism that permeate from the surface to the core of patriarchal culture, from archaeological reconstructions of the past, through method and theory, to language and conceptualization (Spencer-Wood 1995). In the rest of this article each layer of androcentric bias that is deconstructed is related to the feminist theory that made the deconstruction and led to research correcting the biases in that onion layer. Nelson (this issue) has used my framework of feminist theory peeling the androcentric onion.

The first layer of patriarchal bias is embedded in ungendered constructions of the past. Once the lack of gender is critiqued, feminists often analyse the gender dichotomies and power dynamics that are generally assumed in ungendered constructions of the past (Spencer-Wood 1995:119–120). Feminist critiques and deconstructions of androcentric biases in supposedly ungendered constructions of the past have a long and illustrious history, starting with critiques of the lack of gender in systems theory models of culture (Wylie 1991:34), and the de-gendering of men’s experiences to represent whole cultures (Conkey and Spector 1984; Reiter 1975:13–15). On a smaller scale archaeologists as well as historians have traditionally defined supposedly ungendered classes only in terms of men’s occupations, subsuming women as wives. The underlying patriarchal gender dichotomy supporting such practices is that only men’s public roles are significant, and women are insignificant domestic subordinates (Spencer-Wood 1995). In fact, from at least the late-eighteenth century until female suffrage in the 20th century wives in most Western countries were not legal persons, had few civil rights, and were owned as chattel by their husbands (Anderson and Zinsser 1988:148–150; Millett 1970:66–71).

Many articles in this journal issue include feminist critiques of androcentrism in supposedly ungendered archaeology. Nelson points out that theories of the origin of states have implicitly or explicitly assumed that only men were leaders. Kehoe discusses the failure to research women’s roles in ungendered accounts of the American fur trade until feminists entered that field. Skogstrand analyses how supposedly ungendered Scandinavian Bronze Age archaeology has androcentrically focused nearly exclusively on men’s roles, making women’s roles invisible. Yentsch discusses how despite feminist critique and correction, many ungendered Irish histories and documents by men continue to make women invisible.

Second-Wave Structuralist-Feminist Theories

Second-wave feminist theory began by critiquing and deconstructing biological determinism by separating biological sex from cultural gender roles. Second-wave Marxist-feminist Rubin (1975:159, 165–167) drew on Engels’ (1972:71–72) separation of reproduction from production to develop the concept of the sex-gender system, to express the interrelatedness of gender and sexuality. Prior to queer theory most feminists followed the patriarchal gender dichotomy in assuming heteronormative sex roles were fundamental kinds of heteronormative gender roles. Sex was part of western women’s domestic gender roles because nearly all women became wives whose domestic duties included performing sex on demand for their husbands. The sexual rights of husbands over their wives were legally enforced because marital rape was not a crime in the US until the 1980s. So heterosexual sex was just assumed to be included as a basic required domestic gender role. Few analysed sexuality as a separate but interconnected aspect of gender, as did Rubin (1975, 1984). Many second-wave feminist anthropologists were also Marxist-feminists who argued that different forms of production fundamentally led to differences in gender and sex roles and power dynamics (Reiter 1975:18).

The critical analysis of patriarchy is the primary thrust of what I call second-wave structuralist-feminist theories, which are concerned with revealing the structures that enforce male domination and female subordination, such as marriage, courts, laws, and enforced limitations on social, political, and economic positions open to women. In the 1970s–1980s the American second-wave feminist movement revealed and critiqued patriarchal practices such as domestic violence, rape in marriage, and sexual harassment in order to identify these practices and successfully lobby for laws making them illegal (Lorber 2001:73–97). However, in 24 US states laws still make it more difficult to convict husbands of rape than strangers, and marital rape remains a lesser crime than stranger rape (Hong 2006:961). While structuralist-feminist theories effectively reveal patriarchal social structures subordinating women, these theories are static and cannot analyse or explain cultural change because they do not theorize social agency.

In historical archaeology Yentsch (1991) explicitly used second-wave feminist theory to analyse structural gender inequalities in household spaces and ceramics in 17th-18th century America. Structuralist-feminist theory is static and does not theorize how women could use their social agency to change patriarchy. In contrast, Yentsch (1991:223–224) implicitly drew on first-wave feminist theory of women’s social agency in discussing how wives increased their status by organizing the tea ceremony after 1720, although she also portrayed serving tea as a subservient activity of wives paying homage to husbands, family, and guests.

Marxist-feminist Theory

One of the most interesting structuralist-feminist theories is Marxist-feminism, which Engels initiated in the 1880s. Today this theory applies the domination and resistance framework (Paynter and McGuire 1991) to analyses of gender power dynamics, as exemplified by Clements’ analysis in this issue of Native American women’s resistance to English patriarchy. Engels (1972:137) famously made an analogy between patriarchy and capitalism, arguing that in the family men are the capitalists while women are the proletariat. Native American women researched by Clements (this issue) resisted their subjugation in English patriarchy because they were from more egalitarian matrilineal societies.

Marxist-feminism also critiques the androcentric analysis of capitalism that did not consider the importance of housework in the daily and generational reproduction of capitalism (Donovan 2001:93; Spencer-Wood 2007:44–46). Yentsch (this issue) provides many examples of women earning livings from housework such as taking in boarders or laundry, thus contributing to the reproduction of capitalist labor beyond family members. In archaeology the critique of the second-class status of women in patriarchy has led to Marxist-feminist analyses of the economic importance of women’s housework for prehistoric as well as historic societies. Marxist-feminists have researched the importance of women’s domestic production not only to public markets, but also symbolically in religious beliefs and rituals. For instance, the McCafferties’ (1999) research on Aztec women found that childbirth and weaving were considered analogous in status to men’s warrior status.

Preceding third-wave queer theory, Engels also critiqued heterosexual marriage as a form of prostitution. The only difference, he felt, was that instead of prostitutes selling their bodies for short periods of time, wives sold themselves into sexual slavery for their lives (Engels 1972). This was true in the 19th century, when wives were legally required to provide sexual services on demand to their husbands (Millett 1970:67–71). The sexual double standard that blamed women for sex as temptress daughters of Eve resulted in laws that only gave men the right to divorce (Anderson and Zinsser 1988:150–151). Clements (this issue) found Englishmen’s documents noting that in the Ponkapog Native American matrilineal society women could easily leave marriages, leading to their resistance to the inability of wives to divorce men under English patriarchy.

Radical Feminist Theory

Second-wave radical feminist theory is also relevant to Clements’ article in this journal issue. Radical feminists theorized that the subordination of women was enforced by systematic, culturally and socially condoned male violence, including rape, assault, and domestic violence. Radical feminist theory revealed how police and courts systematically failed to protect women from male violence and even blamed women for being raped by men, due to the sexual double standard (Donovan 2001:155–83). Clements (this issue) discusses how the patriarchal English colonial government in a Massachusetts praying Indian town did not permit a high-status Indian woman to divorce her physically abusive husband and instead punished her for adultery, violently enforcing her subordination by sentencing her to be stripped naked and publicly whipped. Only Englishmen could divorce their wives for adultery, in contrast to the Ponkapog disapproval of adultery by either marriage partner. Clements provides information supporting the contention of radical feminist theory that women are subordinated under patriarchy through systematic male violence that is supported by men’s state institutions such as police, courts, and judges.

Post-colonial Feminist Theory

In the 1980s Marxist-Feminist theories were applied to nonindustrial and industrializing economies, resulting in post-colonial feminist theories that analyse how attempts to impose patriarchy and capitalism on indigenous societies are interrelated in processes of colonization and colonialism (Lorber 2001:68; Mohanty 1991). Clements (this issue) cited Silliman (2005:58–59) for his definitions of colonialism and colonization, developed from previous definitions. Silliman (2005:59) defines colonialism as (1) the attempt by colonists of a nation-state to control foreign territories and dominate indigenous peoples through processes such as dispossession, economic marginalization, labor control, racism, oppression, and other actions producing inequalities; and (2) the responses of indigenous peoples, from resistance to acquiescence. Colonialism is often accomplished through colonization—establishing colonies to administer state control, manage interactions, and extract labor, raw materials, and surplus production (Silliman 2005:58). While Silliman includes gender, sex and intimacies in his model of colonialism, Clements (this issue) further draws on post-colonial feminist theory, which analyses how the imposition of patriarchy, including asymmetrical gender power dynamics involving the sexual and economic subordination of women, is central to processes of colonialism. In fact, the Spanish called their strategy for subduing Native Americans the conquest of women because it involved raping the women and killing men who tried to defend them (Kwolek-Folland 2002:18).

Clements (this issue) applied post-colonial feminist theory to analyse the suicide of a high-status Native American woman as an act of ultimate resistance to the attempts of English colonists to force her subordination to an indigenous but abusive husband who had adopted patriarchy. Clements further analysed how English colonial men persuaded indigenous men to adopt patriarchy so they could dominate indigenous women, upsetting the gendered balance of powers in tribes that were matrilineal. She mentions Devens (1991), who similarly researched how Canadian Cree men used patriarchy to legitimate their attempts at male dominance, resulting in resistance by Cree women.

Kehoe (this issue) discusses the important merging of post-colonial feminist theory and third-wave feminist diversity theory. Post-colonial feminist theory analyses diversity both in attempts to impose patriarchal capitalism through colonialism, and diversity in responses of indigenous peoples. Post-colonial feminist theory is Marxian in relating colonized women’s status to their control over the means of production (usually land and agricultural tools in non-industrial societies), and their control over the distribution of the goods they produce. Several archaeologists have researched how indigenous women lost status as male European traders preferred trading with indigenous men who then controlled the distribution of, and profits from, hides produced by women (Frink 2005; Habicht-Mauche 2005). Kehoe (this issue) notes research by Habicht-Mauche (2005) on the way the fur trade in protohistoric Texas led indigenous men to capture and enslave increasing numbers of women to produce more hides, increasing the men’s wealth and status from the fur trade. However, Kehoe also notes her in-press research showing extensive pre-European trade in women by indigenous plains tribesmen.

Recent archaeological research has implicitly used first-wave feminist theory (see below) to analyse the social agency of indigenous women involved in European fur trade systems. Kehoe (1976), followed by others (Deagan 1983; Van Kirk 1980; Woodhouse-Beyer 1999), researched how indigenous women could gain status through “country marriages,” or concubinage, to European men. Cantwell and Wall (this issue) research the autonomy of indigenous women as traders of furs or sex for status goods provided by Dutch traders in the New Netherlands American colony. Other historical archaeologists have researched how indigenous women in the Pacific Northwest sold their skills as translators, bead stringers and clothing sewers to Russian fur traders, and also traded sex for status goods that they kept in some cases, while in other cases men traded women that they owned for status goods (Jackson 1994). These cases exemplify the significance of the diversity of indigenous women’s and men’s responses to colonialism that Kehoe (this issue) aptly points out.

Another kind of post-colonial feminist theory relevant to this journal issue is internal colonialism, involving attempts by dominant cultures in nation-states to get immigrant groups to adopt the dominant gender ideology, identities, roles, relationships and power dynamics (Gordon 2006). The dominant Anglo-American gender ideology specified the ideal feminine submissive attitude and obedient behavior. Yentsch (this issue) points out that my research notes the unsuccessful attempts by reform women to impose such middle class gendered values and housekeeping standards on immigrants they wanted to Americanize and train to become domestic servants (Spencer-Wood 1996:412). Most of these immigrants were Irishwomen who did not display enough deference and were far too independent, strong-willed, and demanding of privileges, from the point of view of middle-class Anglo-American housewives (Yentsch this issue).

First-Wave Egalitarian Feminist Theories

The second layer of androcentric bias in archaeology involves the explicit legitimation of patriarchy through the projection in gendered discourse of patriarchal stereotypes and inequalities. For instance, the common practice of naming historic sites after the male head of household reifies the legal disappearance of historic wives as non-persons in marriages (Spencer-Wood 2007). Grahn (this issue) similarly critiques and analyses how Norwegian governmental cultural heritage organizations have made women invisible at heritage sites by documenting only men’s roles at sites.

Feminist critiques of taken-for-granted patriarchal inequalities in the 19th century initially used first-wave feminist theory to argue for gender equality and women’s social agency. Since the 1400s first-wave feminists argued that women were equally rational as men and therefore deserved equal educational opportunities (Lerner 1993:192–195). First-wave theories can be divided into what I call public-feminist theory that argued for women’s legal public equality with men, and cultural feminist theory that argued that women’s domestic sphere deserved equal status with men’s public sphere.

First-wave Public-Feminist Theory

What I term first-wave public-feminist theory developed out of the Enlightenment by arguing that the theory of natural public equality did not just apply to men as the US Constitution assumed, but also applied equally to women. Enlightenment egalitarian feminist theory critiqued the inequalities of patriarchy and argued that women deserved legal public equality with men in all areas, including citizenship, pay, education, property rights, legal rights, civil rights, and child-custody rights (Donovan 2001:21–23). Suffragists not only demanded the vote, they sought complete public-legal equality with men that would materially eliminate the legal bases for women’s subordination under patriarchy.

The earliest feminist archaeological argument for women’s public equality that critiqued the projection of patriarchy into the past was the critique of the Man the Hunter myth created by cultural anthropologists as well as archaeologists. Interestingly, in cultural anthropology Marxist-feminists were the ones who found ethnographic evidence that women could exert their social agency to be hunters as well as men. Women often hunted collectively with men using nets, fire, or driving animals (Dahlberg 1981:11–12; Turnbull 1981:212–214, 217). Women also hunted small game in many hunter-gatherer societies (Slocum 1975:43), and used spears to hunt larger game among the Agta in the Phillipines (Estioko-Griffin and Griffin 1981). Such evidence was essential in critiquing and correcting the Man the Hunter myth, which argued that human evolution resulted from men’s cooperative hunting. Women supposedly didn’t evolve because they stayed at the home base with the children and were dependent on men to bring home the bacon and the firewood (Washburn and Lancaster 1968:296, critiqued by Slocum 1975). The importance of women’s cooperative gathering and teaching of children were not considered at all. Feminist critique of Man the Hunter (Slocum 1975) only led to the slight retrenchment of Man the Scavenger, with men continuing to be the only suppliers of the all-important meat, as if women couldn’t scavenge, which is really just meat gathering (Spencer-Wood 1992:100). By implicitly applying a cultural feminist perspective, Lee’s (1968) ethnographic research demonstrated the importance of women’s gathering as the predominant food source in most of what should be called gatherer-hunter societies. Such feminist critique and research has led to more recent research on plant gathering by Big Game Hunters in the Americas. In research on American Great Plains sites, Kehoe (this issue) challenged the assumption that artefacts classified as projectile points were used in hunting by men, and re-interpreted them as knives because of their predominant distribution in women’s domestic areas. However, it is still commonly taught that meat was the most important food for prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and it is continuously repeated in TV programs that men’s hunting was essential to hominid brain expansion and evolution.

Articles in this journal issue challenge other myths that only men were shamans, leaders, and traders. Nelson points out that deconstructing Man the Hunter still left intact the widely and deeply entrenched sexist belief that only men could be leaders of societies, based on the dichotomy between dominant public men and subordinate domestic women. Nelson provides documentary and archaeological evidence of female shamans and leaders in East Asia, giving the lie to the androcentric assumption that only men were capable of being shamans and leaders. Nelson teased out information about female leaders from texts by ancient Chinese historians who erased much information about women. Cantwell and Wall make an analogy between the Man the Hunter myth and the Man the Trader myth. In contrast to the myth that all European traders in America were men who selected Native American men as trading partners, Cantwell and Wall found documentary evidence that Dutch and Native American women were traders in the New Netherlands. On the American plains Holliman (2005) found documentary and archaeological evidence that Arikara women controlled trade with European men, resulting in increasing numbers of beads in female traders’ burials, indicating their increasing status.

Archaeology from a public-feminist theoretical perspective is important in showing that women are capable of public equality with men because some women in the past achieved equality, from the highest leadership positions to ordinary public occupations (Nelson 1997:131–148). Feminist archaeology can critique and counter androcentric claims that women have never held important public positions and are thus biologically incapable of performing well in such positions because they are too emotional or because they bear children. The more examples feminist archaeologists can uncover of women’s leadership in the past, the less tenable it becomes to dismiss female leaders as exceptions to the rule of male leadership the world over, used to justify the continuing exclusion of women from leadership positions. Nelson’s (2003) edited volume of research on Queens has gone a long way to dispelling the lingering claims that women were and are incapable of performing as well as men in leadership positions. There are many examples of women’s leadership, from Egyptian pharaoh Queens Khentkawes, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VII (Khentkawes 2011; Troy 2003), to Native American women who were leaders in their tribes (Trocolli 1999). In this journal issue Nelson critiques the assumption that only men held the important public position of shaman and finds evidence of female shamans who were important in the development of states. The development of states has always been considered an important issue, so evidence that women were important to the rise of states raises the possibilities for women’s public achievements in the past and in the present. Female teachers know that role models are important in empowering women’s achievements in the future, and a long history of role models from the past is particularly empowering for women in the present. Thus feminists have been writing books about important historic women since the 1400s (Lerner 1993:193–194).

Cultural Feminist Theory

The first wave included not only public-feminist theory, but also cultural feminist theory, which critiqued the patriarchal devaluation of women and their domestic sphere, arguing instead for the equal or greater importance of women’s domestic values and roles compared to men’s public roles and values (Donovan 2001:47–79). This theory is not Marxist because it is not arguing specifically for the importance of women’s domestic roles to capitalism. Instead, women’s supposedly innate moral superiority was considered due to the closeness of the domestic sphere to nature and God, removed from men’s capitalist public sphere, which promoted the Biblical sins of usury and exploitation, and competitive values contrary to Christian cooperative values promoting social justice (Spencer-Wood 1994a:126; 2006:156–157). From the 19th century into the early 20th century cultural feminists argued that women’s superior moral/domestic values and abilities meant they should control their domestic sphere, which should be considered equal in importance with men’s public sphere (Spencer-Wood 1991a:250–254). Wall (1994) researched how women increased the importance of their domestic roles by expanding and elaborating meals.

Cultural feminists were both domestic and public feminists in that they argued that innately morally superior women and their domestic sphere should become public in a number of ways. Reform women ideologically conflated and combined the domestic and the public, shifting the boundary between the supposedly segregated gender spheres. Before the word post-structuralism was coined, domestic feminists created alternative ideologies and reform movements that destabilized patriarchal gender power dynamics. They fundamentally used two strategies to make women and their domestic sphere equal to men and their public sphere (Spencer-Wood 1994b, 1996).

In the first strategy reform women wrote popular domestic manuals that advocated bringing men’s public-sphere scientific-industrial technology into the domestic sphere to rationalize and mechanize housework, arguing that it should be as well respected and remunerated as men’s professions. Catharine Beecher and her famous sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, made an analogy in the most popular domestic manual of the second half of the 19th century between the high status profession of minister and women’s sacrifice and leadership of the family flock in the cult of home religion, in which women led Sunday Bible readings to the family gathered around a round table. The Beecher sisters symbolized the sanctity of women’s domestic roles and sphere with a Gothic house filled with material culture carrying religious symbolism (Beecher and Stowe 1869; Spencer-Wood 1996:417–425; 1999a:181–185). Yentsch (this issue) contrasts this Protestant view of the home as a moral sanctuary with the Catholic Irish-American view of homes as secular.

In the second strategy reform women transformed household tasks into women’s professions, enterprises, and institutions that physically dominated neighborhood landscapes by constructing the largest and tallest buildings. They took over some male professions by arguing that women’s supposedly innate domestic skills made them better suited to be elementary school teachers, sales clerks, and typists. In the public cooperative housekeeping movement reform women established cooperatives for cooking and daycare, first for the middle class and then for poor immigrants. They created new female professions in day nurseries, kindergartens, playgrounds, public kitchens, libraries, industrial schools, women’s colleges, and social settlements, where the professions of social work and public health nursing were founded. While creating new public women’s professions, reform women argued that they were really just natural extensions of women’s domestic roles and sphere (Spencer-Wood 1987, 1994b, 1996). In the municipal housekeeping movement reform women argued they were the mothers and housekeepers of the world and persuaded male governmental officials to appoint women as inspectors of factories, streets and garbage, as well as playground supervisors, members of school boards, juvenile justices and parole officers, and matrons in women’s prisons and reformatories (Spencer-Wood 1994a:126).

My publications on reform women’s childrearing institutions and programs, including day nurseries, kindergartens, kitchen gardens and domestic science classes, as well as changing conceptions of childhood and the social agency of children in social settlements and playgrounds, are among the earliest feminist archaeological studies of children, childhood, and community institutional mothering (Spencer-Wood 1987, 1991a, 1994a, b, 1996, 2003). Several other archaeologists have published research focused on children in the past (Baxter 2005a, b; Sofaer-Devervenski 1994, 2000). These studies could contribute to the development of feminist theories of childhood, which are currently limited to theories of mothering and the socialization of children that reproduces the gender power dynamics in patriarchy. In historical archaeology Wilkie (2003) has explicitly drawn on feminist theories of mothering by Chodorow, who theorized how mothering reproduced a role fundamental to women’s oppression; Ruddick, who theorized the superiority of maternal thinking for community (Donovan 2000:22–5,186–187); and Collins (1994), who in the third wave called for feminist theorizing of the full diversity of women’s mothering experiences, in a feminist edited volume theorizing the social constructions of mothering. Yentsch (this issue) discusses the materialization of Irish-American childhood, including gender differences, and the shoes that Irish children did not have. Clements (this issue) discusses how English colonization of America transformed Native American gender systems into patriarchy, including the rule of children by fathers.

Third Wave Feminist Diversity Theories

What I categorize as third-wave feminist diversity theories began by critiquing second-wave structuralist-feminist theories for focussing exclusively on women’s domestic subordination, by overgeneralizing white middle-class women’s experiences as universal and failing to consider the experiences of working women of color (Hooks 1984). Third-wave feminists theorized the diversity and fluidity of women’s life cycle experiences and identities due to complex changing intersections between gender, race, class, and subsequently, ethnicity, sexuality, age, religion, etc. (Lorber 2001:147–163). Social constructionist theory developed a structuralist perspective analyzing how societies construct diverse cultural categories and identities (Lorber 2001:179–195). Blackmore (this issue) has noted critiques of additive or checklist models of identity that tend to reify dichotomies.

The analysis of complex intersections between cultural constructed categories of gender, sexuality, and other social dimensions of identity has become a significant paradigm in archaeological research, especially in historical archaeology, where the plural and shifting dimensions of individual and group identities can be analysed from documents and used to gain greater understanding of diversity in material aspects of gendered identities, from foodways to religious landscapes (Casella and Fowler 2005; Meskell 2001; Scott 2004; Spencer-Wood 1999b, 2010a). My research mapping and analysing the movement of domestic reform institutions on Boston’s landscape from a feminist diversity theoretical perspective revealed diverse changing relationships between reform women’s institutions and the location of different racial/ethnic neighborhoods (Spencer-Wood 1994b, 1999b, 2010). In this journal issue articles analyse ethnic diversity in the cultural construction of gender ideologies, identities, and practices, including sexual behavior of (1) colonized Native American women (Cantwell and Wall, Clements) and (2) American women who immigrated from Ireland compared to those who immigrated from England (Yentsch). Nelson analysed diversity in goddesses and female leaders in the Far East.

Queer Theory

Blackmore (this issue) outlines third-wave queer theory, which is a postmodern critique of dominant discourses constructing fixed, normative, and naturalized categories. Queer theory developed from second-wave lesbian theory, an offshoot of radical feminist theory that critiqued the oppression of women in heterosexual marriage and advocated politically-motivated lesbian relationships. Lesbian feminist theory critiqued the heterosexism in previous feminist theories that only considered two sexes and privileged heterosexuality as normative and natural (Donovan 2001:174–179). Queer theory critiqued the dichotomy constructed between heterosexuality and homosexuality in lesbian theory and theorized a greater diversity of nonbinary, nonhierarchical sexual categories as performative, acquired, and constantly renegotiated identities, following Butler. Further, queer theory researches the fluidity in cultural constructions of biological sexes, sexual identities, sexual orientations, relationships, and practices (Lorber 2001:195–196).

Blackmore (this issue) notes critiques of queer theory for failing to examine how sexuality articulates with other aspects of identity. She quotes Sullivan (2003:72) concerning “the complex interaction between a range of discourses, institutions, identities, and forms of exploitation that structure subjectivities (and the relations between them) in elaborate, heterogeneous, and often contradictory ways.” Blackmore exemplifies a combined feminist theoretical approach by using queer theory in an expanded way to analyse the multiple identities and internal class dynamics among Mayan commoners, who have usually been constructed as a monolithic group in dichotomous opposition to the elite.

Queer theory has sometimes been implicitly or explicitly used in archaeological analyses of complex intersections between diverse and changing cultural constructions of sexualities, genders, and biological sex, in conjunction with social dimensions previously addressed in third-wave feminist diversity theory, especially race, class, and ethnicity (Voss and Schmidt 2000). In a recent trend archaeologists have increasingly developed queer interpretations of Native American material culture as expressing third or fourth genders or sexualities that were sometimes documented as holding high status (Holliman 2006; Voss 2006; Whelan 1991). Kehoe (this issue) cites McNiven and Russell (2005:209) for their post-colonial questioning whether archaeological narratives can claim empirical superiority or are just more imperialist colonialism, instead of listening to First Nations’ narratives of their pasts.

Queer theory also has a postmodern concern with the changing constructions of sexuality and gender through discourse, texts, and performances (Lorber 2001:203). Perhaps the most used feminist theory in archaeology is Butler (1990), who combined queer theory with Foucault’s ungendered theory about cultural categories of identity being materially inscribed on bodies and in bodily behaviors, to develop the theory of gender and sexuality as performances that are materially inscribed on bodies. Butler’s theory went beyond Foucault’s ungendered theorizing and beyond previous queer theory to develop a theory that is particularly useful in archaeology because of its stress on the repetitive nature of material performances of gender and sexual identities. Butler’s theory has been widely used in prehistoric archaeology (Perry and Joyce 2001) and historical archaeology, where gender performances have been analysed from archaeological remains of men’s and women’s clothing (White 2005) and of women’s food preparation that expressed Californio ethnic identity (Voss 2008).

Masculinity Theory

Feminist reflexive critiques of heterosexism in feminist theory has also led to masculinity theory analyzing the diversity in constructions of masculinities among sexualities, classes, races, and ethnicities. For instance, the hegemonic, heterosexist, homophobic, violent hypermasculinity of the dominant group has been contrasted with gay subordinate masculinities (Carrigan et al. 1987:92; Connell 1995:76–81). In historical archaeology Kryder-Reid (1994) analysed how gender roles and power dynamics were constructed in a monastery. The ordained brothers took masculine roles and the lay brothers who performed domestic roles such as food preparation and service, laundry, and cleaning were also portrayed as stereotypically feminine in character—meaning modest and submissive. In prehistoric archeology masculinity research has brought to light masculinities in the past that differed from masculinities today, critiquing and correcting the projection of the dominant hypermasculinity of the present into the past (Alberti 2006; Holliman 2006). In this issue Skogstrand critiques archaeological and historical reconstructions of normative Scandinavian Bronze Age masculinity as exclusively the hypermasculinity of warriors.

Material Feminist Theory

Material feminist theory has recently emerged in sociology to analyse material culture as an active force in the construction and negotiation of gender and its intersections with other social dimensions, including disability (Alaimo and Hekman 2008). This feminist theory developed in part out of the queer theorization of the material inscription of bodies involved in material representations and performances of gender and sexual identities. Blackmore (this issue) makes this connection by pointing out that queering material representation, embodiment, and performativity leads to analyses of objects not merely as reflections of the past, but rather in a recursive dialogue between self and society. Non-feminist archaeologists have long theorized material culture as a non-gendered force in the construction of cultures. Yentsch (this issue) cites Douglas’ (1977) theorizations that material goods “establish relationships among individual actors” and “convey information about the hierarchy of values within a society; a way to belong to a community; and a means to share its communal identity.” In an early archaeological theorization of material feminist theory, material culture was viewed not “simply as a product or reflection of cultural behavior or ideology. Instead, I view material culture as an active social agent that shapes behavior” in contextually contingent ways, without fixed meanings (Spencer-Wood 1996:407).

Feminist Epistemology

Epistemology is concerned with what is considered knowledge, what kinds of research questions are considered worth asking by whom, what are considered valid methods of obtaining knowledge, and who is authorized to create knowledge. Feminist theorists have critiqued men’s androcentric research questions and methods of knowledge construction as well as the androcentric devaluation of feminist research as “just political,” while claiming that “objective” scientific methods exclude subjectivity. Code (1991) revealed that androcentric biases shape supposedly objective science. Harding (1993) and Wylie (1992) have argued that the recognition of the subjectivity in feminist standpoints creates stronger objectivity than previous “objective” scientific methods that ignored androcentric biases. Feminist standpoint theory developed by Hartsock (1987) argues that women’s standpoints and knowledges are more complete and inclusive than men’s standpoints and knowledges because men’s knowledge excludes women while women’s knowledge includes men’s standpoints and knowledge by critiquing them and creating knowledge that includes both women and men and gender power dynamics. Feminists argue against the post-processual relativistic argument that feminism and androcentrism are just alternative equally biased standpoints (Mascia-Lees et al. 1989). A feminist standpoint is more complete than androcentrism because feminist theories include sexist biases and dichotomies in order to deconstruct them and develop a broader more inclusive standpoint and construction of the past (Spencer-Wood 1992).

Feminists have analysed how androcentric knowledge is produced by male-centered questions and methods. For instance, prior to feminist critiques androcentric archaeologists only asked about men’s hunting in analyzing early hominid evolution (Washburn and Lancaster 1968). Therefore only large-sized screens were used to collect evidence of stones and bones involved in hunting. They did not use methods such as flotation to collect evidence of gathering of plant foods because only men’s hunting was considered important.

Feminist Critiques of Androcentric Language and Evolutionary Theories

Perhaps the deepest feminist critiques are of androcentric language and thinking, which are connected because thinking is dependent on language. Feminists have critiqued the use of supposedly generic male pronouns and nouns because research has shown that people only think about men when reading male pronouns and nouns. Feminists have suggested truly generic pronouns such as s/he. Nelson (this issue) points out that the inability to perceive women rulers is based on the fact that anthropological theories use terms of leadership that are masculine, such as big man, chief, king, and emperor. Similarly Cantwell and Wall (this issue) found that earlier studies of the 17th century New Netherland American colony focused on male European and Iroquoian traders, in part because the term “trader” is assumed to be masculine. I have critiqued the anthropological term “role” for combining ideal expected and normative actual behavior. Feminist analyses require that gender ideology and ideal expected behaviors be distinguished from actual behaviors, to avoid confusing the dominant gender ideology with actual gender practices. Patriarchal gender ideals and ideology can only be changed by actual gender practices that deviate from gender ideals and have led to the construction of new alternative gender ideologies in the past as in the present. Thus it is imperative to distinguish between ideal expected gender behaviors and actual behaviors, which are combined in the term “role” (Spencer-Wood 1995:128).

Theories of biological and cultural evolution are fundamental theories that are purportedly ungendered but in fact androcentrically biased. The main driver of biological evolution is thought to be natural selection, the survival of the fittest that occurs through the male-associated process of competition over scarce resources. This projection of masculine social Darwinism on the natural world can be critiqued from a cultural feminist perspective that shows how female-associated cooperation has been essential to the survival and evolution of hominids (Spencer-Wood 2000:114) as well as many other social animals, as pointed out by Kropotkin (1902). Nelson (this issue) mentions that Pyburn (2004:5) has argued for the dismantling of old arguments and categories of cultural evolution because of their androcentric biases. All the major theories of cultural evolution, as with biological evolution, stress male-associated competition rather than female-associated cooperation as a strategy for cultural evolution. Men’s technologies are also usually considered major drivers of cultural evolution, along with the development of craftsmen, male priests, military and male leaders controlling trade, etc. Only males are theorized as creating both biological and cultural evolution.

Feminist Inclusive Both/And Thinking

There is a long history of feminist anthropologists critiquing the universal construction of gender in modern western binary oppositions (eg., Conkey and Spector 1984; Reiter 1975:11–14; Rotman 2006; Slocum 1975; Spencer-Wood 1991b). At a deeper level I have critiqued the either/or thinking that underlies dichotomies and Deetz’s (1988) structuralist claim that binary thinking is biologically based. Instead I have argued for both/and inclusive feminist thinking that does not construct gender-exclusive categories and dichotomies. For instance, inclusive feminist thinking analyses how men in the past have been both public and domestic, and how women have been both domestic and public (Spencer-Wood 1995:129–30). In the realm of heritage McDavid (1997) used and expanded my both/and feminist framework to create public interpretations of excavations on the Levi Jordan plantation in Texas that included perspectives both of slave descendants and of descendants of the white owners of the plantation.

A both/and inclusive feminist perspective also analyses men and women as polythetic sets rather than monolithic uniform categories. In polythetic sets the members share some but not all experiences, identities, and beliefs. That is, while all girls are daughters, their experiences of being daughters vary widely, and not all women become wives or mothers (Spencer-Wood 1994). Similarly Yentsch (this issue) cites feminist historian Scharff (2003) to point out that “notions of womanhood vary from time to time, place to place, group to group.”

A both/and inclusive feminist perspective also leads to analyses of constructions and performances of multiple fluid intersecting social identities (Spencer-Wood 1995:130). The complex plural and fluid identities of individuals can be modeled as a set of intersecting social dimensions such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, religion, etc., analysed in third-wave feminist diversity theory (Spencer-Wood 2002:206–207). Each social dimension can be modeled as a range of values in a spectrum, replacing the proliferation of categories with a model of continuous variation, permitting endless fluidity of recombinations and permutations. Complex identities are constructed as the intersection point of values along the spectra of many social dimensions. A person constructs situationally changing multiple identities to affiliate with different social groups by foregrounding one or a combination of identities and backgrounding others. Over time individual identities can also be changed by moving along the continuua in one or more social dimensions, changing the intersection point among the multiple dimensions of identity. For instance, some people have shifted from performing the identities of a working-class white female to performing the identities of a middle-class white male. Some African-Americans have altered their appearance and performance to pass as white (Spencer-Wood 1997, 2007:47).

A Feminist Framework for Analyzing Social Power Dynamics

In this journal issue Yentsch argues that Irish-American women used my concept of “powers with” from my heterarchical model of gender power dynamics. My research on gendered power dynamics among reform women and men (Spencer-Wood 2003, 2004) led me to develop a feminist inclusive model of power that draws on Crumley’s (1987) model of a heterarchy of geographical forms of ranked and unranked powers, and Kent’s (1999) continuum model of power among hunter-gatherer societies. Crumley’s (1987, Marquardt and Crumley 1987) heterarchical model of geographical powers has been transformed and expanded into models of social power dynamics (Levy 1999; Spencer-Wood 1999c:179). My feminist inclusive heterarchical model of power as a complex continuous spectrum incorporates both hierarchical power dynamics such as domination and resistance, and nonhierarchical power dynamics exercised in social relationships and networks, including non-ranked, multiple-ranked, and egalitarian power dynamics (Spencer-Wood 1999c:179). This framework developed from my inclusive “both/and” theoretical perspective, which is feminist in critiquing and deconstructing cultural dichotomies such as gender and race, and instead permits the development of continuum models of such social dimensions and their complex intersections (Spencer-Wood, 1995:130).

Besides including the widely analysed powers of domination and resistance, my feminist heterarchical model of multiple powers brings to light the importance of “powers with” other people, which include dialog, affiliation, cooperation, collaboration, inspiration, empowerment, negotiation, and collective group action (Spencer-Wood 1999c:179). Revising Miller and Tilley (1984) I’ve created plural categories of parallel powers: dominating “powers over,” resistant “powers under,” and cooperative “powers with” others. In the dominant Victorian gender ideology, dominating “powers over” were associated with men and cooperative “powers with” were associated with women. In theorizing power I use the term “powers” to indicate the multiple and diverse forms of social agency that exist, rather than the term “power,” which suggests a singular, uniform, unvarying substance. It can be argued that “powers with” others are more powerful and can overcome powers of domination (Spencer-Wood 1999c:180). One example is the success of the feminist movement in using “powers with” diverse women to gain rights denied by a male-dominated government. My research has revealed how reform women gained the cooperation of male governmental officials in creating female-associated natural-moral green spaces such as parks and playgrounds to re-form men’s sinful cities of stone (Spencer-Wood 2003). “Powers over,” “powers under,” and “powers with” together represent the diversity in “powers to” create change through different kinds of social agency (Spencer-Wood 1997, 2010b). Everyone has some “powers to” create change, whether through domination, resistance, or other forms of social agency.


Patriarchal constructions that make women invisible or monolithically insignificant in the past disempower women today from working to eliminate patriarchy. Articles in this journal issue demonstrate the importance of feminist critical theories for post-structural deconstruction, destabilization, and queering of patriarchal assumptions and dichotomies that have been legitimated and naturalized through their unwarranted projection as universals in the past. Feminist archaeologists need to peel away all layers of the androcentric onion to deconstruct the self-reinforcing structure of patriarchal biases embedded at every level. The articles in this issue also demonstrate the utility of a variety of feminist theories, and often implicitly combining theories, to ask about and find archaeological evidence of women’s overlooked social agency and leadership in the past, as well as analyzing women’s oppression under patriarchy. These articles are feminist in their epistemology of constructing knowledge centering on women’s lives and analysing gender power dynamics in order to bring women back to life who have disappeared in androcentric constructions of the past. Feminist research on women’s social agency in the past is critical to empowering women’s social agency that is needed today to eliminate the continued oppression of women in modern patriarchies.

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© World Archaeological Congress 2011