I find that most illustrations and other representations depicting the evolution of humankind depict the evolution of males by default. A Google image search of “evolution of man” turns up a plethora of illustrations depicting the evolution of exactly that, A MAN. Women, for some strange reason, are nowhere to be seen, though I’m sure we were part of the process. Although there is this illustration which turns up on a number of websites: the evolution of man and woman.

As well as the more advanced version.

Even though I have studied a great deal of anthropology, including some physical anthropology, and have always been interested in evolution, I find that only the image of males evolving is stuck to my brain. What women looked like through the years? The gradual progression of sexual dimorphism, when things happened and what it looked like? Not so sure. If anyone knows where I could see an illustration of the evolution of women, that is, something that doesn’t depict us constantly cleaning the floor, I would be much obliged. Even though anthropology has taught me a lot about how women as gatherers were usually responsible for bringing in the most sustenance, and how societies with matrilineal kinship systems and egalitarian property structures are typically more peaceful and less patriarchal, I still get other messages from a lot of the images and language associated with our discipline. This is despite the fact that the canon of anthropology, at least on the cultural side, has been developed and influenced by female scholars.

Anthropology has, like most other sciences, been traditionally male-dominated. However, there have been a number of influential female anthropologists, the most popular of course including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and some more contemporary women like Sherry Ortner. Other prominent female anthropologists can be found here.

Many of these anthropologists have questioned traditional philosophical paradigms that were based on deeply rooted Western canons whose development were heavily centered on the male perspective. Many female scholars have challenged traditional notions of sexuality and gender, Margaret Mead is perhaps best known for her endeavors in that arena, and in their own lives, ahead of their times, exhibited the fact that women can do science, write well, conduct intensive fieldwork, and lead very interesting personal lives. While these women were typically relegated to lower posts than their male counterparts, or earned a lower rate of pay, they introduced and influenced a great body of work that contributes a great deal to what anthropology is today. Female scholars have also developed a lively discourse in feminism and feminist anthropology, working to understand gender and power from a cross-cultural perspective. Women almost everywhere face various kinds of oppression, but not everyone experiences oppression, or empowerment, in the same way. In recent years, it has also become important to look at how gender inequality affects men, the concept of “maleness”, and the gender continuum which varies apart from biological sex.

Despite all of this, anthropology still seems alarmingly malecentric. For a field so heavily developed and influenced by women, I have to wonder where the women are depicted, and who understands their impact. It has been said that the way we talk about things filters what we understand of our reality. Images work the same way. If I’m a woman and I want to know how we as humans evolved, but all I can find are pictures of apes turning into men, I can’t see where we are in the picture. I don’t see humans, I see men. There are a lot of discussions going on in our field about how science textbooks, particularly in the field of biology, reinforce patriarchal notions, associating the male body with the stereotypical role of aggressor and sexual predator, for example, through the use of precise language and visual depiction. It seems that anthropology should be at the cutting edge of questioning and confronting those stereotypes.