Sherry B. Ortner (EN)

This post is dedicated to one of my feminist theory heroines of the eighties. Of course I keep returning all the time to certain theoretical interests that I had twenty years ago. But recently some authors that were important to me in the past and that I hadn’t thought or heard of in a while, have crossed my path, metaphorically speaking, causing me to reflect of the significance of their work to me at the time and today, and on the continuities and discontinuities of their theoretical labors.


I returned to West Berlin from the US in 1986. At the time, as a German citizen, it was still relatively easy to live on welfare or unemployment benefits and I managed to work relatively little until the end of the eighties, when I started physiotherapy school.
As always, I spent a lot of time reading. I loved taking the metro to Dahlem, in the South West of Berlin, spending hours in the stacks at the Free University central library, and returning home with piles of books.
One area I was particularly interested in at the time was feminist anthropology. Somewhere I surely still have the copies I made of articles out of Rosaldo & Lamphere (eds.) “Woman, Culture and Society” (1974) and Reiter (ed.): “Toward an Anthropology of Women” (1975).
This was before I started taking a serious theoretical interest in race and racism. I hadn’t really woken up to the existence of Black feminism, and it was still some years before I would discover postcolonial studies.
Yes, I was interested in the relationship between class and gender, in the articulation (or whatever) of capitalism and patriarchy – that’s why, for example, an important book in the feminist anthropological literature for me at the time was a collection edited by R. Hirschon, “Women and Property, Women as Property” (1984).
But mostly I read feminist anthropology looking for answers to my questions about the origin of patriarchy, about whether male dominance was a universal feature of human societies and if so why. I was a great fan of a collection of articles edited by Sherry Ortner and Harriet Whitehead called “Sexual Meanings” (1981).
I strongly rejected Left ideas of the primacy of class, and took a very dim view of Engels’ ideas about the origin of the family etc, and of the work of Marxist anthropologists who produced what I saw as slight variations of Engels – which is perfectly OK, I basically still feel the same way today. But looking back from where I am now I feel I had a tendency to take over the same kind of totalizing, reductive approach to analyzing society that you find in many classic Left approaches, trying to identify one central logic that determines one set of social relations that determine more or less everything, and just exchange one set of terms for another, that is to say, now it was patriarchy or male domination that was the primary logic and was basically the same everywhere and at all times… I’m exaggerating a little, but it is true that at the time, I wanted simple answers and big blocky truths – I had no love for intricacies, contradictions and unresolved questions…
The intersection of race and gender was not much of an issue for me yet. Neither was I all that interested in the details of what actually happened to precapitalist societies under colonialism and imperialism.
I realized this when, some weeks ago, on my shelves I came across “Feminism and Anthropology”, by Henrietta Moore (1988) – a book which has been in my possession for twenty years, but of which I had never read more than the first two chapters. I took it along on a short holiday and read the whole thing with great interest, particularly “Kinship, Labour and Household: Understanding Women’s Work”.
So I have been rediscovering, and reviving, albeit in a new way, my old fascination with this field. It was a very satisfying experience to read some more recent articles of one of my heroines of the eighties, Sherry B. Ortner, in “Making Gender” (1996), a collection of her work spanning twenty-five years, to witness the evolution of a brilliant thinker, to follow her changes of perspective, and to realize that critical reassessments and changes of perspective do not necessarily invalidate earlier work…