Concomitant with the rise in interest in gender studies over the past decades has been the charge that an agenda of “political correctness” is at play in these endeavors. Gender-focused methodologies have changed the face of Mesoamerican studies as much in archaeology as in anthropology and political science. Nevertheless, the charge is made that, as in the case of Afrocentrism (of the more doctrinaire type), this can result in so much “post-hoc-ism,” a term in political science that means to tailor the “facts” of the historical record to fit a political agenda of today. A less aggressive, but similarly dismissive, charge is made of “innecessity,” as Joyce comments in this debate: “That accusation suggests that there’s an unnecessary quality to research on gender.” The speakers address themselves to this issue and further to the issue of what can be gained through a gender-focused approach that can’t be achieved any other way (i.e. how contemporary gender research has altered disciplines as varied as archaeology, religious studies, Precolumbian cosmological studies, or ethno-medical studies).
The speakers pose some caveats about gender studies, agreeing in general that gender is relational and substantially socially constructed or mediated. Conkey points out: “First of all, I don’t think we even know what ‘politically correct’ means. To some people it might mean all of the downtrodden are going to be given their due, and this of course includes women. Well, women are not the only ones with gender. Gender is a relational construct. Your notion of who you are in terms of your intersection between your biological sex and your social constructions and performances of who you are, which you might call your gender, is determined in relationship to other people, other men, women, other gendered forms. And so gender isn’t something that you are born with. It’s always a negotiation.”
Another important caveat expressed by Gutmann is that gendered notions of division of labor vary greatly over time and within groups: “If there is a division of labor in a household, it is not automatically true that these are unequal simply because one person cooks and one person chops the wood. It has a lot to do with decision making, with overall responsibility, and it has a lot to do with the attitudes of the people involved, how they regard their own situation.”
Many of the speakers caution against the tendency towards “totalizing” or “essentializing” arguments that limit interpretation to one factor and that do not allow for the ambiguities and dualities that the historical and archaeological records demand. These tendencies can range on the one hand from the impulse to assign a gender to an artifact from a contemporary point of view (i.e. you find a sword, you ask, “who carries swords?” Men carry swords; it’s a male artifact) to, on the other hand, underestimating or overestimating the power of, say, women in a given society, of interpreting imbalance as all one way or another. López-Austin says of the Mexica: “Clearly we find ourselves in a society in which the role of women was highly regarded, to the point that balance in the cosmos is impossible without the participation of forces that are considered feminine. This, however, should not lead us in any way to the conclusion that such a balance is so exact as to suggest fifty-percent masculine forces and fifty-percent feminine forces. Let’s say that, based on the value of numerical symbols, we can deduce the proportionality of the masculine and the feminine in the cosmos; we could say that the number thirteen might represent the masculine side, while a smaller number, a nine, might represent the feminine side.”
Kellogg, Brumfiel, Conkey, and Gutmann discuss the problem of interpreting the “visual” record (codices, statuary, stelae, burial sites, etc.) in isolation. Kellogg says: “As I started to work with central Mexican primary sources, there were documents about women all over the place. But scholarship did not seem to fully reflect the participation of women that I was beginning to see. One of the first clues that there might be some intriguing things to think about was in working with the Florentine Codex and seeing that the pictures, the visual images, did not always match up with the written text.” Indeed this is the central theme of all the speakers: that apparent discontinuities are as important as continuities. If the depictions of women on stone carvings represent “winners,” i.e. elites, what can be inferred about the daily life of average women or men from these same stone carvings? What other forms of evidence need to be utilized and with what weight?
The speakers propose gender as “another,” not the “only,” lens through which to view the past. But this implies varying from previous “scientific” reductionist models. This might be best summed up by Joyce who states: “There is a completely other way of thinking about better scientific explanations. And that is that better scientific explanations are those that come closer to what’s called ‘empirical adequacy,’ meaning they look like the things they’re meant to explain.”