“Nasty Women” and Man the Hunter: Archaeology and Gender Politics in 2016

Gender Politics in the 2016 Election: Exploring Archaeological Interventions

Let’s talk about gender.

We certainly aren’t the only ones; the country is abuzz with discussions surrounding gender and politics. For the first time in history, a man and a woman are competing for the highest office in the United States of America. In no other presidential election have gender politics been so visible, or so divisive.

To start, I’ll touch on two primary examples (of many, to be sure) of the ways gender has come into play in the current election.


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the First Presidential Debate

(Screenshot: The New York Times, First Presidential Debate, streamed live on Sep 26, 2016)

Example 1: Donald Trump’s Version of Masculinity

A few weeks ago, the world heard a presidential nominee speak casually, proudly, smugly about sexually assaulting women. We saw the outrage – many voices from both parties condemned his words, and many more pointed it out as a demonstration of the type of toxic masculinity that persists like a wound beneath gender relations in our country. We also saw many men and women move to defend these words; they were justified as “locker room talk” and “men being men,” or dismissed as the status quo for men in power. Often, these justifications ignored the difference between talk of sex and talk of assault, as if the word “pussy” was more likely to offend sensibilities than the verb “grab” that came before it. In other cases, these justifications pointed the finger at the husband of the other presidential candidate as a measure of her worth and her culpability. Rather than condemning all sexual assault against women, these justifications only worked to excuse the actions of two men at the expense of a woman and her professional and personal reputation.  In either case, justifications naturalize this behavior as essential of masculinity, to the detriment of both men and women.

Example 2: Hillary Clinton and the Perceptions of Femininity in Politics

Whether or not Hillary Clinton and other women in politics, or even the professional world writ large, are held to a double standard constitutes an ongoing and polarizing debate about gender in our country.  Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that Democrats and Republicans alike have been concerned and outspoken about her level of authenticity; she is scrutinized on her demeanor, her ability to relate, her trustworthiness, and even her humanity. For Bernie Sanders-supporting liberals and Trump-supporting conservatives alike, these perceived qualities are the yardstick to which Clinton is often held. Her qualifications and her platform are in many cases secondary to these critiques, if they are considered at all. Further, her “stamina” is called into question, her strength and her vitality placed under scrutiny by her opponent on multiple occasions.  We are all, by now, familiar with the “nasty woman” comment.

Some may chalk this up to disagreement with her politics – and that’s fine, because by no means should being a woman remove her from the rigor of critique; such treatment would be a form of discrimination all its own, particularly since she represents one of the most experientially qualified candidates in the history of American politics (despite whether you agree with her or not).  But how much of this discomfort has foundations in negative perceptions of women performing traditionally male roles, in presenting themselves as dominant, assertive, outspoken?  I think that it is worth calling into question how weighing Clinton’s “likability” stems from societal discomfort with challenging expectations of gendered behavior – even among self-identifying progressive millennials.


Lessons from the Archaeological Realm

For many, these examples will speak clearly about the ways gender is both explicitly and implicitly at play in the political process.

For others, perhaps not – because gendered thinking runs deep and is often perceived as natural and incontestable. Men will be men. Women lack stamina. The logic of arguments such as those of Donald Trump and his defenders have at their foundation naturalized notions of gender.  These foundations – deep-rooted beliefs about the world and its order – are in large part responsible for the difficulty we have in communicating across ideological divides. After all, if “locker room talk” is just boys being boys, why bother critiquing it? To naturalize such violence, be it verbal or physical, is to render it beyond our ability to fix; it is to place men and women into black boxes of gendered behavior that passively allow, perpetuate, and at worst encourage violent manifestations of gender ideology like sexual assault or gender discrimination.

This is where archaeology comes in. Below, I’ve attempted to think through five lessons that archaeology might bring to the table in a national conversation around gender and politics – but more importantly, the ways that archaeological thought might be able to challenge the more insidious and unseen ways gender ideologies affect our politics.


Lesson 1: Gender is not fixed, essential, or binary.

In 1984, Meg Conkey and Janet Spector wrote:

“…feminist scholars conceptualize gender as a complex system of meaning – that is, a social category that lies at the core of how people in particular cultures identify who they are, what they are capable of doing, what they should do, and how they are to relate to others similar to and different from themselves” (1984: 16).

Today, gender as a social construction is widely accepted by archaeologists and anthropologists. At the time, this statement was a bit more revolutionary, as was Conkey and Spector’s critical discussion of the androcentrism within archaeology (see Lesson 3). The study of gender that they presented over thirty years ago highlighted some significant shortcomings in archaeology: that under the guise of objectivity, archaeological interpretations often applied modern, Western notions of gender onto the past; that “male” was uncritically treated as a standard while “female” was rendered invisible or simply deemed unknowable; and that such unreflective work reifies problematic universal notions of gender or the sexual division of labor in the present.

In the decades since this was published, feminist, gender, and queer archaeologists have taken these issues and developed them in new, important, and exciting ways. In most circles within the discipline, we’ve moved well past the “Man the Hunter” paradigm. In the context of the current election, however, Conkey and Spector’s writing remains powerfully relevant:

“Researchers presume certain ‘essential’ or ‘natural’ gender characteristics. Males are typically portrayed as stronger, more aggressive, dominant, more active, and in general more important than females. Females, in contrast, are presented as weak, passive, and dependent… Biological differences are seen as structuring and, in the case of females, limiting social roles and social position” (1984: 4).

Perhaps many don’t think in such explicit terms these days (though many probably do). But consider the ways these facets of thinking seep into our perceptions and discourses regardless. Clinton’s health has been disproportionately scrutinized, and used by her opponent to portray her as “lacking the stamina” needed for the presidency, a historically male position. Trump, on the other hand, has been characterized by followers as strong, a true leader, and aggressive in ways the country needs, despite continual demonstrations of instability, unpreparedness, and lack of judgment. This persists despite a gaping disparity in qualification and experience between the candidates – indeed, Trump’s perceived strength and aggression are viewed by many as his primary qualifications for the presidency.

The lessons that resonate from over thirty years ago are that gender does not exist as the male/female binary that many Americans still assume is natural, fixed, and universal, and that beliefs about the sexual division of labor and gendered behavior are in fact constructs that we create and perpetuate through our words and practice.

Hunter-Gatherer Cartoon where women hunts a mammoth that was blocking what she had wanted to gather

(Image: Anthropology.net, https://anthropologynet.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/hunter-gatherer-cartoon.gif)

Lesson 2: What is feminism? 

Archaeology also wields power to define misunderstood concepts and terms through practice. Feminism is a loaded word these days: its detractors generally seem to think that it means elevating the status of women at the expense of men, and thus find it threatening.  Unfortunately, it is much easier to dismiss misunderstood concepts rather than critically engaging with them.  Simply, feminism is the belief that the women deserve the same social, political, and economic rights as men.

The history of feminism and gender archaeology is incredibly rich.  While I cannot detail it here, I do think archaeological engagement with feminist theory is an important tool for fostering these discussions with the public.  Archaeological sites that highlight women in the past and engage with questions of gender in challenging ways, such as The Wiawaka Project in Lake George, New York, create spaces for important conversations with the public about the ways in which women’s roles in society and notions of femininity are negotiated in the past and the present.

Other archaeological work poses important interventions too, particularly by Black feminist archaeologists such as Whitney Battle Baptiste (UMASS Amherst) and Kathleen Sterling (Binghamton University). Mainstream feminism, also referred to as White feminism, often neglects or at worst erases the intersections of race, sexuality, and other identities that shape the experiences of women of color and transgender women, among others.   Black feminist archaeology offers a powerful tool to opening up discussions around feminism and intersectionality with the public (see Lesson 5).


Lesson 3: We can talk about masculinity, too.

Many of us have probably heard the term “toxic masculinity” by now, perhaps recently in regards to Donald Trump’s comments that position women as things to be looked at, touched, manipulated, and used for male pleasure without regard to consent, let alone respect as human beings (as Rosemary Joyce quoted First Lady Michelle Obama in a recent blog post, “It’s about basic human decency.”). Toxic masculinity, in a nutshell, is the idea that this is normal, that it represents something essential about what it is to be a man, and thus something that must be upheld and protected.

The essentialism of masculinity is destructive for men as well as women, though in different ways. Trump’s engenderment of men as biologically predisposed to his “locker room talk” is not representative of many or even most men in our country; it does not represent an ideal that most parents imagine for their sons. Yet this type of thinking persists. We see it in the defense of his comments, on message boards and comment threads, in schools and workplaces and courtrooms.  We see it in the sexual assault and rape of women in 21st century America – as well as the light sentencing for these crimes for young white males, the public scrutiny and victim-blaming of women who come forward (including Trump’s own accusers), and the widespread denial or doubt of their experiences.

So in discussions of gender, masculinity is at stake as well. As Conkey and Spector pointed out, androcentricism treats “male” as an unmarked category – and as long as toxic ideas such as the normalization of sexual assault continue to be essentialized as “men being men,” it keeps them “unmarked.” It prevents us from discussing them as the social constructions they are, and challenging them in ways that are beneficial to everyone.


Lesson 4: Queering the past, queering the present.

Queer archaeology has done some of the most important groundwork in recent years to create a past and a present that are open to a wide diversity of gendered identities. This could easily constitute a whole month’s worth of posts – and it will, when my fellow PhD student Nathan Klembara takes over as guest editor in early 2017.

Here, I would just like to note that the way we present the gender in past is inherently political, and that the queering of the past in our work – the rejection of normative values in favor of more nuanced understandings, identities, and histories – creates important spaces for challenging and reworking ideas about gender and identity in the present. Notably, the National Park Service recently released a groundbreaking LGBTQ Heritage Study, edited by Megan Springate – the first edited work focused solely on LGBTQ history and heritage sites nationwide. You can check it out here.

That being said, I’m very much looking forward to Nathan’s series to discuss this further – stay tuned to the MAPA blog!


Lesson 5: Intersectionality as a new foundation for political discourse.


Intersectionality Word Cloud

(Image: Organization for Human Rights and Democracy, http://www.ohrdemocracy.org/building-intersectional-frameworks-for-human-rights/)

So what does archaeology have to offer? Above, I hope to have highlighted some of the ways archaeological practice and theory can be used to challenge deep-rooted notions of gender in society that have been prevalent throughout the election. Much of this is conversation-based: using archaeology as a vehicle to create dialogues with the public that are mutually challenging and productive.

But I think that archaeology has something to offer in terms of practice too, for ourselves as well as the publics we work with as we navigate the election and the challenging times that are bound to follow. I want to propose an intersectional approach to politics.  Here, I reference Kathleen Sterling’s guidelines for an intersectional approach for prehistoric archaeology, adapted from Alison Wylie’s “Doing Archaeology as a Feminist” (2007) and rooted in Black feminist theory:

  1. “Consider questions of difference, particularly the intersectionality of identity, and conduct research that may help illuminate difference and promote justice.
  2. “Ground research in the situated experiences of people of all ages, races, genders, etc., taking their daily lives as a starting point. Identity is constantly experienced and performed…
  3. “Observe certain ethical and pragmatic norms such as responsibility to the community being researched, employing collaborative forms of knowledge production, and democratizing science. Work to increase the diversity of voices in knowledge production.
  4. “Recognize that all research reflects the situated pragmatic interests of the researcher” (2015: 12).

To take this from prehistoric archaeology to modern day politics, imagine applying it to the ways we engage in political discourse, particularly in the face of the polarization that characterizes American politics today.  Rather than research, perhaps we could work towards engaging these guidelines in daily practice and political decision making.  Encourage our politicians to engage in intersectional and critical practices in office and policy.

Such an intersectional politics would leave room for open discussions of gender ideologies and relations, rather than falling back on essentialized male/female dichotomies.   Further, it leaves room for other critical discussions surrounding diverse intersectional identities, the ways they are performed, collaboration and diversity in the way we produce knowledge, and self-reflexivity in our own interests and privileges.


Some Concluding Thoughts: Discussing Gender in the Discipline

We should also remember that archaeology in particular (and the academy in general) struggles with issues of gender as well, and must continue to address the ways that we uncritically perpetuate gendered assumptions, norms, and disparities amongst our ranks.  From sexual harassment in the field, to the salary and tenure disparities of women in faculty positions, to uneven expectations placed on graduate students or failure to cite Black female anthropologists in scholarly works  – there is quite a lot we still need to work on, in addition to our critical practice or our theoretical engagement with these issues.  These types of thinking go deeper than many of us tend to realize, even within our own discipline. Let’s keep talking about them.

Though this list is far from exhaustive, my main goal for this post was to pose a few lessons that archaeology is well positioned to contribute to the present-day politics of gender – always, with the hope of generating further discussion around the ways we can contribute to these conversations as the election approaches and in years to follow.  Please share your thoughts, experiences, or additions in the comments below!

Works Cited

Conkey, M.W. and J.D. Spector (1984) Archaeology and the Study of Gender. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 1-38.

Sterling, K. (2015) Black Feminist Theory in Prehistory. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 11(1): 93-120.

Wylie, A. (2007) Doing Archaeology as a Feminist: Introduction. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14(3): 209-216.

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