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Week 4: Talking with Sherry Ortner

Anne Dalke's picture

This week we read a series of six essays taken from two of Sherry Ortner's collected volumes, Making Gender and Anthropology and Social Theory. Some of us may have the opportunity to hear her public talk about "Indie Producers: Class and the Production of Value in Recent Independent Cinema"--and all of us will get the opporutnity to speak with her during our class on Tuesday.

What questions do you have for Sherry?

What reactions do you have to her speaking and writing?

How relevant and useful is her theorizing for your own disciplinary thinking and/or life practice?

w0m_n's picture

Week 4

Many of the things the class said in response to Sherry's visit I agree with, especially her being a little dated but at the same time I think that the historical context that she provides for our discussions is very important. While we were commenting on her visit I could help thinking about what later generations will say about our work in gender and sexuality today. If nothing else her visit gave us a look into that future. I also think that like any historical context her experience teaches us about methods that have worked in creating more progress.

rae's picture

Sherry Ortner--No Longer New in the 21st Century

About Sherry Ortner--I think that her articles seemed very…familiar. It was important information, but it didn’t seem like anything new or fresh; I’d heard it all before. I recognize that her work was immensely important when it came out, and furthermore, I recognize that the initial importance of her work may be the reason why it now seems so familiar. Likely, much of the feminist and gender-related writings I’ve read have borrowed from or relied on Ortner’s work.
    Perhaps this feeling of it being nothing new is why has felt, in some sense, to be “dated.” To be honest, I also have not read much in the way of anthropological writing, so it might also be a problem of differing disciplines. Still, though, it seemed tame. When I read, I look for things that will shake up my preconceived notions, things that will introduce me to completely different ways of thinking. Ortner’s articles did not do that. And again, it could be because she was so influential that she influenced much of what I have already read, which would explain why it seems that her articles somehow repeated things I have already heard. I think her articles help support a good foundation in gender studies, and it is important to have a sturdy foundation. I’m just more interested now in what can be done beyond that foundation.  


Owl's picture

IS Sherry Ortner Outdated?

I am not sure.

I cannot comprehend.

My mind agrees, but it doesn't.


Not where I come from.

Education for women:

Not important: or at least that what I got from my upbringing.

Sure we have it; it exist, but do we really flaunt it?

I'd like to think that we are moving up a ladder outside this patriarchal society, but that stands to question.

I think we need to find a way to to connect the past with the future.

Without being able to see the power it took to pop the bubble, we cannot fully understand what we are fighting for today.

To my knowledge coming to a woman's college such as  Bryn Mawr still has meaning, we just can't see it.

I mean if it didn't then why do they still exist?

For me, coming to a woman's college made me feel as though I had the ability to confront whatever obstacle I encountered without in someway or another feeling as though I had to hide it.

Be it the male embodiment or the devil's advocate, I know I do not have to shy away from criticism to public embrace, because I am who I am and not afraid.


River Flowing


What we need to do is recognize how much of the past still remains today and why?

For life is like river. There is a beginning and a past, but it all connects.

There may be bumps along the way, but they are all a part of the river's character.


meredyd's picture

 You said exactly what I was

 You said exactly what I was thinking (I like your river analogy!) - even though I was one of the people who called Ortner outdated in class, I've thought about it some more and found that despite this, she's also a necessary part of the feminist/gender studies canon. Like you said, "we need to find a way to connect the past to the future". I'm still trying to think of concrete ideas of what that would entail. 

LizJ's picture

The Radical and The Feminist

 The feeling I am getting from other posts on the forum is that they are speaking about how Bryn Mawr College is no longer radical, at least not in the way it used to be. I both agree and disagree with this statement. The fact that Bryn Mawr doesn't have daily protests and has to bribe people with food to attend plenary would indicate a lull in activism on campus, but I think we have to look further. All the points people have been making are completely valid, but to say Bryn Mawr is not radical at all is unfair to the institution. I mean first of all, just look at this class. When I talk to my friends back home about the topics we discuss in class, they sigh and blame it on the fact that I go to an all-women's college. But that's exactly it! While going to an all-women's college doesn't have the same radical edge it had a hundred years ago, it's still radical. There are only so many all-women higher-educational institutions and we're still here. I got so much crap from friends, teachers, and even family about choosing to go to an all-women's institution, because it's still not seen as "normal." As for comfort, I do think everything on campus seems really comfortable, but I do think that's mostly an insiders view. From the outside, what we do here is not "comfortable." Whether people are openly gay, openly feminist, or openly liberal it doesn't seem like a lot on campus, but it is a lot in the real world. And not everyone is trying to cushion our college experience, Anne herself said it was her goal to make Bryn Mawr as "uncomfortable as possible." I'm not trying to say that Bryn Mawr is super radical and doesn't need to change anything, because it isn't and it does. But I do want to give it some credit as well.

Off of that point... I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed learning about Anne and Kristen's history on how they became feminists. It made me want to delve into my own history, though short it may be. It's funny because my dad went to Dartmouth and my mom went to Bryn Mawr. Having Kristen, who attended both, talk about how male dominated Dartmouth was and then going off to Bryn Mawr, made me see a little of my own history in her. My dad is so proud that he attended Dartmouth (and still talks about it too much) that I've always rebelled against the idea of a large, historically male-dominated institution. My mom on the other hand, even though she went to Bryn Mawr, never talked about her college unless it was completely relevant to the conversation at hand. Therefore, there was no cause for me to rebel against Bryn Mawr. In fact, because my mom didn't talk about Bryn Mawr often, it intrigued me more and, I think, sealed my fate in coming here. There is so much more that has made me the feminist I am today, such as being raised by a single mom for some years and having family roots in a very traditional, male-dominated Suriname, but I'll leave those for another day.

Karina's picture

Yeah, BMC's not an accurate representation of reality, but...


Reading over these posts, I was struck by how often the question of what it means to attend an all-women’s college came up. I guess it’s appropriate enough since the class is held at Bryn Mawr and the vast majority of the people in it are, in fact, Bryn Mawr students. As someone who’s pretty passionate about women’s issues, I feel a peculiar, if not sometimes confusing, affinity with Bryn Mawr.
Last semester, when I attended the Vagina Monologues, I felt a sense of awe as I sat in Thomas Great Hall. It wasn’t because of the action of the stage (though the fact that it was that well-attended is, in itself, enough of a statement about the students’ priorities), it was due to the fact that while I still was surrounded by familiar-looking oil portraits of dead, white historically significant figures in robes, these figures were women. They did not alienate me. Yes they were white, wealthy, natural-born American citizens, but they were women. Like me! My God, what an absolutely banal observation to make, but one that is so infrequent that it took me by surprise. I felt at home. I felt empowered. I felt a sense of longing.
I think of the current exhibit in Magill Library – prominent figures, or benefactors, or perhaps past presidents of Haverford College. Dead white men in dark wooden frames, all unsmiling, none attractive to be sure. What I feel when I walk through that hallway in Magill is that I’m a dimply lit place of higher education. (Somehow the dimmer the lighting, the more serious and more studious the atmosphere? Also the darker and oilier the wood…) More than just that, however, I feel privileged to be in such a place. Not privileged, in the sense of being grateful, but privileged in the sense of “I should thank my lucky stars that an institution as exclusive as Haverford, one that produces so many successful men throughout its history (I mean, just look at the paintings on the walls!) to whom I, Karina Puttieva, could never compare (I mean, just look how portly and important and mustached and concerned they look! Where’s my intelligence-bearing look of composure? Where are my beard and gold-rimmed spectacles? How awkward for me to have remained so naked all this time, how womanly…) should have conceded to looking the other way just this once and letting me in. Really, frankly, it was probably because I’m foreign. Diversity is popular nowadays.
What I felt that day in Thomas Great Hall was a sense of being welcomed, invited into the circle of oil portraits; that for once I could locate some small but significant part of my identity in that Incomparably Great Historical Figures. Not only could I see myself in the “future” of such an institution, but I could also sort of, kind of, locate myself in its “past.” That continuum makes a difference. Roots make a difference.


twig's picture

the comfort of bryn mawr

in thinking about bryn mawr as a radical place, i agree with holsn39 - it isn't. this is a shame considering our history and our potential. we are a school of so many people who are so passionate about so many things, and yet no one rocks the boat. i, of course, have to include myself in this population of non-radicals, and it really started to aggravate me during thursday's class. i came to bryn mawr thinking it would be radical, i was excited to get to be radical with other people and not just be off by myself passionate about a lot of things that no one else has time for (aka highschool). an entire school full of women? that place must be crazy, they must be protesting something every day. in fact, this is not the case at all. sga was once radical, and we still like to tout bryn mawr as the first student led administration or self governing institution, or whatever the exact rhetoric is. but plenary is coming up, and in order to get people to go, they have to close every other food source on campus, hoping to drag bleary eyed, starving mawrtyrs out sunday morning and into the newly renovated goodhart (which cost 19 million to do, and now $20 an HOUR for students to use. why is no one more up in arms about that? i'm angry about the absurdity of paying to use a college space and i have never been involved in theater...). what was once radical is now an obligation. part of what makes plenary so grueling is the length of time it takes out of most students oh so busy lives, most of which is usually spent begging for quorum. i'm sure at some point in our history, maybe even when ortner was here, people were excited to go to plenary. what happened?

comfort. we talked a lot about comfort in class, and i think that's a large part of the problem. we're comfortable. and yes, i cannot presume to speak for every single mawrtyr, but as a population, we are far too comfortable. i just read in the college news that dean tidmarsh's new project (or one of) is going to be to create an even better support system for new mawrtyrs. apparently someone feels that we are lacking support and cushioning. i think this is absurd. bryn mawr has more support and comfort inducing measures than anywhere i have ever heard of or been a part of. not only do these systems exist, they constantly are advertised to us and we are often obligated to at least try to use them (for example, it was mandatory we attend the writing center on a certain number of papers in my c-sem, not because she thought we needed the writing help, but because she wanted us to know how to use one of our many support "tools". honestly, i was 19 at the time, i think if i need help i can ask for it, and if i can't ask for it yet, in my opinion i better learn fast, because in that proverbial 'real world' no one is going to ask me 17 times if i'm sure i don't need any help or maybe want 3 resources there 'just in case'). this comfort leads us to not do anything radical. radicalism comes from a desire to change the status quo. if our status quo is the cushiest place around, what are we going to rally for? women who didn't have the right to vote became radical to earn that right. workers who don't get paid enough strike for more pay to live on. people who are hungry demand food. even in our own history, women not educated in a man's world demanded a place to learn. what do we want? what is the next envelope to push? we are made so comfortable that we have nothing that we NEED to radicalize around? could that maybe be the point - quell the revolution? bryn mawr lives a lot in its history - because we were once so radical, and radically founded, and produced some radical people, it overshadows the need to be radical now, as if we have already served our time as radicals, thank you very much. i don't think this is the case. i think that since bryn mawr was founded as revolutionary, it must always be revolutionary, not just bask in the light of revolutions won. this makes us obsolete. are we really content to be part of an obsolete institution at the young age of twenty something? i'm not, i'm tired of being comfortable. i want to feel toward bryn mawr now, like sherry ortner did then. we make the institution, so what's our next frontier??

cantaloupe's picture

gay at a women's college

I am similarly interested in if Bryn Mawr is radical or not like the post two below me.  I think that we aren't anymore.  We are a college that is obsessed with academics.  As far as I can tell, Mawrters are really committed to their studies.  It varies, of course, there are those of us who don't invest all of our time into academics.  But with the people who don't commit themselves to academics, I feel like they are the "partying" kind...going to Haverford, Swat parties etc.  It might be a gross overgeneralizations, but with the people I know here, that is what I've observed.  There are people who are maybe "radical."  They want to create change, but I'm not sure any of us really do make any change.  There definately isn't an overriding theme to the campus.  I don't feel like we are all commited to one goal.  We have May Day and "death to the patriarchy" but I think that has become just a tradition.  We think the May Hole is funny and joke about it.  It isn't a serious thing that we are committed to anymore like I imagine it once was.  

There is one thing that we haven't really talked about at all that I think is important to Bryn Mawr: it is really gay.  There are a lot of gay women at Bryn Mawr, and sometimes I think we down play that because we don't just want to be a "gay college."  When I decided to come to Bryn Mawr I was already out and all my friends at home poked fun at me saying that I am just going to a women's college for the women.  People who aren't out as gay get poked fun at by people saying that they will become gay because it is a women's college.  And people who start dating women here get poked fun at by people saying that the women's college "made them gay."  There is no possible sexuality that avoids the comment.  Despite what the general public thinks about women's colleges and their gayness, being gay at Bryn Mawr is really empowering.  There are a lot of us and I think it's amazing that we have created a comfortable space for ourselves.  That being said, we don't really do anything radical in our gayness, we just are.  The only gay groups on campus (I think) are support groups.  There isn't any kind of movement here that promotes change in the world in regards to gay issues, like marriage.

justouttheasylum's picture

 I think you're one of the

 I think you're one of the first people I have heard say there were a lot of gay women at Bryn Mawr. I usually hear one of two extremes: every Bryn Mawr student is a lesbian or that all the women are after Haverford men (and thus not gay). Your statement makes me wish I had asked Sherry Ortner about sexuality on campus when she was a student. It would be interesting to know if, in her time at Bryn Mawr, there were as large a number of lesbians and bisexual students. In particular, I'd like to know if they were the 'radical kind'. I am also interested if she believed Bryn Mawr College allowed for greater sexual liberation, regardless of sexual preference.

rae's picture

Gendered toys

I happened upon an article about children's toys that I thought was interesting. It goes to show the extent to which toys are specifically aimed at either girls or boys (based on the pink-for-girls/blue-for-boys color scheme).

By the way, I think it's interesting that pink/blue thing is so prevalent now. I believe I've read that long ago (possibly around the time of the founding of the United States, or maybe before--the time is slightly irrelevant to my point), pink was actually the color for boys, and blue was the color for girls. I believe it might have been in Europe. The idea was that pink was a softer version of red, which is the color of blood and courage and strength and manly stuff like that, and blue is a calm, soothing color and thus suitable for girl babies. 

I just think it's interesting that there's been such a dramatic shift because now blue is associated with boys and pink is so very strongly tied to girls.

Anyway, I can't remember how to properly add a link here, but the URL is as follows:

holsn39's picture

Bryn Mawr, Radical? or Not...

My mind is stuck on the subject of women's college, their purpose, and the environment at Bryn Mawr.  After reading people's opinions about this subject and hearing Ortner's comments about her experience here (Bryn Mawr) I began to see how a woman's college can potentially be a space that fosters activism and radical social change.  What I understood from Ortner was that Bryn Mawr really was a radical place when she attended the college and that coming here was a "good shock."  When I hear about the place that Bryn Mawr once was I am disappointed in what it has become. Since being at Bryn Mawr I haven't experienced any "shock" or been exposed to anything that I see as being very politically or socially 'radical' in respect to our times.  Maybe this is just my perspective so I am very interested to hear what other people have to say about this school from their experience or as a student from another institution.  Why aren't Bryn Mawr students and faculty taking the role of activists (maybe in a more extreme way) and challenging social structures instead of conforming? Bryn Mawr is liberal but I don't think that a liberal environment necessarily encourages activism.  I would like to see students applying the intellectual discourse that occurs in and out of class to radical social movements.  I think that the issue here may be that the college has become too focused on creating a safe accepting environment.  I don't think that college should necessarily be a place where we feel comfortable, maybe it should be a place where students are taken out of their comfort zone and presented with extreme ideas (everywhere, not just in or out of the classroom) that challenge what they believe, and teach them to not 'accept' each other but instead to challenge each other and try to understand one another.  I'm worried that Bryn Mawr's goal may be to 'create citizens,' but it doesn't always support the agenda of an activist aiming to create 'radical citizens'. By being encouraged to accept others for 'who they are' I feel discouraged from the role of an activist, because an activist doesn't accept things the way they are.  I have never thought of myself as an anarchist before but now that I am identifying myself in this new environment I'm feeling more drawn to the idea.  There are lots of students at Bryn Mawr who misinterpret and are afraid of the word "feminism" let alone "anarchism."  So what happened to Bryn Mawr? Is this school still a radical place? Has it lost the "shock" factor? If so, or if not, is that a good or a bad?  Please share your opinions, I admit that I really am judging based off of first impressions, and this is really only one of my personal perspectives.   

I'm scared that people are too happy with the way things are to be radical.  The idea of redefining gender and sexuality is still radical in our society so I think it takes a lot to be an activist (for redefining these social norms), or to "walk your talk."

Alice's picture

Agency from a "western" perspective

I found Sherry Ortner's essay, "Power and Projects: Reflections on Agency" particularly interesting in how it discusses the intersections of "projects". She cited an example from Nicole Constable's study of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong claiming that there are various projects at work between the employer and employee. She discusses the increase in agency, and in this case, power the domestic helpers have in their jobs as they build a sense of community and join organizations that protect their rights. I find Ortner's essay conciderably progressive in a sense because she understands that there are numerous forms of agency at play. In my anthropologicaly studies, I feel like there is this tendancy to view agency in one way: the western, more powerful nations have agency where as the "other", weaker (and feminized) nations do not. Ortner diffuses this kind of thinking by claiming that the "other" do have agency, but of a different form. I always find it really frustrating to hear about western feminists who describe women's conditions in developing countries in ways that completely deny them agency, often talking for them and about their lives without any significant input. I can't help but think of the current situation in Afghanistan where the U.S. (a powerful and therefore masculine nation) wants to go into Afghanistan to "save the oppressed women." I feel like statements like this deny Afghani women any agency by ignorning their cultural or social "projects" as Ortner discusses in relation to the Magar people. By swooping in and claiming that they know what is best and taking control of the situation, the U.S. ignores the important social histories of the country. I guess that's just something I've been thinking about, especially if we begin to think outside of issues directly pertaining to our community and more towards a transnational one.

ebock's picture

role of education

I was intrigued by our discussion in class today and the topic of the role of education in society. I think it might have been Sherry that mentioned that schools "create citizens." So what is the goal of higher education? Why are we at Bryn Mawr and Haverford? Why are we taking this gen/sex course? Are we becoming involved with the gender & sexuality studies program because we want to not only be citizens, but informed citizens. Is there a "problem" or "problems" we're looking to solve? Of course, these are all leading questions, but something that I was considering during class that didn't quite rise to the surface of discussion was the idea of a practicum or some kind of field work for gender and sexuality studies. What would the implications be of adding some kind of required project that takes place in communities around our colleges to the curriculum of the gen/sex program? I know the education program has field placements, and in anthroplogy you can take field work courses for credit. What would it mean for the gen/sex program to add something like that? This was just kind of floating around in my brain and I was thinking about how this idea might play into how I re-envision our "ideal" syllabus for the rest of the semester. Thoughts anyone? I don't know if this is a fully formed thought, but I can't tell because my brain is not entirely functioning due to lack of caffeine haha.

Rhapsodica's picture

I found it interesting when

I found it interesting when Anne pulled out Sherry Ortner's footnote in class: "I went to a woman's college, and in retrospect I think it was for essentially these kinds of reasons [referencing the woman mountain climbers who do not have to rely on men or expect to have their abilities questioned by them]. Perhaps this is the place to thank Bryn Mawr College, without which I am quite sure I would not be doing what I am doing today."

As a junior at Bryn Mawr, I can identify with the reasons underlying her choice to attend a women's college, and I do feel a sense of empowerment as a student here. I would really love to hear more about Ortner's time at Bryn Mawr and how she feels it has influenced her work, in the sense of how her time here shaped/changed her point of view about issues of gender, class, etc., but also how it led her to be doing what she is doing, as she mentioned in the footnote.

We've been discussing whether women's colleges are still valid/useful categories, and I am curious to hear what Ortner thinks about this, from the point of view as an anthropologist who has been examining gender over the course of a few decades, and as an alum of BMC who clearly credits her experience here as being an important inflence on her life/work.

kayla's picture

past and present of nature/culture


I appreciated Ortner’s return to her classic “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” It’s not as if her observations were wrong, but her return to those observations in order to present an updated look at the question of universal male dominance. I’m not totally sure if I am correct, but it seems to me that there has to be some sort of divide between generations of women and feminists, and that some are simply unwilling to bridge that gap. If this is the case, then “So, Is Female to Male…” is an excellent example of returning to past conceptions of feminist issues and reflecting on what can be changed and updated. And more than that, I loved the conclusion to the second essay: “so what?”. She states that she has moved beyond “the static parallelism of the categories” to “understanding the politics of the construction of such linkages” (180). I’m interested in hearing more about Ortner’s process, if it can be called that, of coming back to the past and rethinking her own ideas, especially considering it can be so hard for people to do this.  


ebock's picture

Questions for Sherry

It was remarkable to see the ways in which your work has evolved during your career. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the kind of self-revision or self-evaluation process that you have undergone as a scholar, as a feminist (if that's something you identify as...), etc.

What advice do you have for us as academics and people who want to make a difference in the world around them? I always find myself feeling guilty about the privilege that I have as someone who has the luxury to be spending time thinking about issues of gender and sexuality in a classroom setting. In your time as a scholar and someone who has clearly spent time as a global citizen, what is important for us to remember if we are really looking to apply what we learn in the classroom to our everyday lives? Advice...?

Also, as a professor - what are your thoughts on required extracurricular projects for classes: like "civic engagement" projects? "service learning?"

I'm really interested in the significance of being intentional about bridging the gap between service/action and theory/scholarship... Is it okay? Would it work?

Looking forward to class tomorrow!

Terrible2s's picture

Culture vs. Nature

I was a little confused about the idea of "Nature" and "Culture."

Is it nature vs. nurture? Or old and new? traditional and modern?

I did think it was very interesting that she spoke of how many of men and women's behaviors are a product of their upbringing. I'm sure it seems like a perfectly obvious idea, but the very fact that when we see similarities in ourselves and our mother/father (depending on sex) that we perhaps model ourselves off of their behavior. Obviously this is not true of everyone, but she has an interesting idea that it is nothing inherent and nothing even in day to day life, but in fact just a human instinct? Should we fight this instinct? Is it being supported by our parents? I'd like to see some case studies of children in "non-traditional" families. May it be a single mom/dad, two mommies, two daddies, or even just being raised by an older sibling as opposed to a parental unit.