Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life
by Marilyn Strathern
Edited and with an Introduction by Sarah Franklin and an Afterword by Judith Butler
Written in the early 1970s amidst widespread debate over the causes of gender inequality, Marilyn Strathern’s Before and After Gender was intended as a widely accessible analysis of gender as a powerful cultural code and sex as a defining mythology. But when the series for which it was written unexpectedly folded, the manuscript went into storage, where it remained for more than four decades. This book finally brings it to light, giving the long-lost feminist work—accompanied here by an afterword from Judith Butler—an overdue spot in feminist history.
Strathern incisively engages some of the leading feminist thinkers of the time, including Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Ann Oakley, and Kate Millett. Building with characteristic precision toward a bold conclusion in which she argues that we underestimate the materializing grammars of sex and gender at our own peril, she offers a powerful challenge to the intransigent mythologies of sex that still plague contemporary society. The result is a sweeping display of Strathern’s vivid critical thought and an important contribution to feminist studies that has gone unpublished for far too long.
In Before and After Gender, Strathern writes that she “brings writing to bear on other writing in order to shift the viewpoint.” From the beginning, she has not so much shifted viewpoints as entirely retooled their optics, making viewpoints undo other viewpoints, and here she does it for gender and all its bumptious ethnographic and conceptual kin. Relationality has always been her subject; she studies relations with relations in order to understand how doing relations works, or in a more utopian vein, might yet work to make us ask better questions. No wonder her extraordinary early manuscript on gender as model and tool for doing relations does late work needed now, when social life everywhere is in theoretical and practical trouble.
— Donna Haraway, author of Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
This book is more than one. It mobilizes anthropological tales to shake nineteen seventies Euro-American feminism out of provincial fantasies of universality. It presents contrasting cases of sexual binarism to demonstrate the relevance of concepts for anthropology, not just those in use in the societies it writes about but also those it uses in writing. And it tells about genders that are variously relational. How truly Strathernian to allow this intellectual ancestor to appear—outdated!—magically fresh!—so long after its prodigious offspring.
— Annemarie Mol, author of The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice
Marilyn Strathern’s “lost manuscript” juggles ethnography, novels, and social criticism as it conjures a moment when the intersection of feminism and anthropology exploded with excitement. In a world in which “theory” too often refers to almost theological dogma, here we watch a master immerse herself in the maelstrom of her material—spinning threads, casting reflections, posing comparisons—to show us how relations matter.
— Anna Tsing, author of The Mushroom at the End of the World
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Table of Contents
Editor’s Introduction: The Riddle of Gender
by Sarah Franklin
Chapter 6: Sex and the Concept of the Person
Chapter 7: Sex and the Social Order
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IAS Fellow at St Mary's College, Durham University (January - March 2010)
Marilyn Strathern, is a Professor Anthropology and has, from 1998 to 2009 been Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. She was an undergraduate and then a research student at Girton, holding posts in Canberra (ANU), Port Moresby and UC Berkeley (visiting) before returning to the UK in the 1970s. She moved to her first departmental appointment in 1985 as chair and head of the Social Anthropology Department at Manchester University. She subsequently held the William Wyse Professorship of Social Anthropology at Cambridge from 1993-2008. A Presidential Chair of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, former Trustee of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, and an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, she was created DBE in 2001 (the first such honour in the subject for nearly thirty years). She became life President of the Association of Social Anthropologist of the UK and Commonwealth in 2008. Under ‘applied anthropology' are her contributions to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Government's working party on the repatriation of human remains.
Marilyn Strathern describes herself as a conventional social anthropologist. A product of the Cambridge School of Social Anthropology at its heyday, her texts reflect issues largely within the discipline than outside it (Mary Douglas once called her -- not altogether flatteringly -- ‘an anthropologist's anthropologist'). These days, however, she has an interdisciplinary audience.
Professor Strathern's interests have been divided between Melanesian and British ethnography: Papua New Guinea has been a principal area of fieldwork, from 1964 to most recently in 2006, although she is also intrigued by developments in knowledge practices in the UK and Europe. Initial work on gender relations led in two directions: feminist scholarship and the new reproductive technologies (1980s-1990s), and legal systems and intellectual and cultural property (1970s, 1990-00s). She is most well known for The gender of the gift (1988), a critique of anthropological theories of society and gender relations applied to Melanesia, which she pairs with After nature: English kinship in the late twentieth century (1992), a comment on the cultural revolution at home. Her most experimental work is an exercise on the comparative method called Partial connections (1991). Over the last twenty years she has published on reproductive technologies, intellectual and cultural property rights and interdisciplinarity, although it is her brief work on regimes of audit and accountability that has attracted most widespread attention. Some of these themes are brought together in Kinship, law and the unexpected (2005). Melanesia is never far from her concerns; in 2009 the University of Papua New Guinea bestowed an Honorary Degree on her, following Copenhagen, Durham, Edinburgh, Oxford, and others.
She very much welcomes the opportunity afforded by the Institute of Advanced Study to further a three-university (Durham, Cambridge, Sussex) ESRC-funded research project on ‘International Science and Bioethics Collaborations: Critical Approaches to New Knowledge Relations', located in the Department of Anthropology (led by Dr Bob Simpson). She will be pursuing her own work on complexity and ‘comparative relativism', but the theme of Water has set her thinking. She would like to try out again a former Oxford Amnesty Lecture on land as intellectual property and see if it also floats.
Fellow's Home Page
Professor Marilyn Strathern Publications
Strathern, M (2010) . 'History and human nature: Cross cultural universals and cultural relativities', Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 35 (3/4)