Emily Martin


Emily Martin is an anthropologist of science and gender. She was one of the earliest feminist anthropologists. She has combined feminist analysis with ethnographic investigation, and explored technoscience, reproduction, the immune system and psychology. Her research areas of interest include science and medicine, gender, cultures of the mind, emotion and rationality, history of psychiatry and psychology, US culture and society. She is currently conducting research on the human subject in experimental psychology [1] . Her greatest contributions lie in her cultural analysis of science. Martin is currently a professor in the department of anthropology at New York University.

Research and Work

Emily Martin’s feminist insights into science have had a large impact on medical anthropological thought and research. Her work critiquing gendered understandings of reproduction and how they naturalize social conventions of gender has been her main contribution to anthropology.

Her book The Woman in the Body (1987) examined how women’s bodies have been constructed scientifically and socially, through examination of historical and medical texts and ethnographic interviews.[2] This work explores how the language used to describe female reproductive processes is negative, while the language used to describe those of males is more positive. For example, on the topic of menstruation, she notes that medical texts describe the process as a failed method of production and as negative through the use of words such as “debris,” “dying,” and “expelling.” Her interviews have found however, that many women anticipate menstruation as a sign of fertility and of not being pregnant.

In comparison with descriptions of male gametes, the female “sheds” eggs that have “decayed” and is “wasteful” while the male “produces,” with no mention of the trillions of sperm wasted in a man’s lifetime. Sperm is something “remarkable” that is actively produced, while eggs are present at birth and merely degenerate during menstruation and menopause. Furthermore, in conception, the sperm is viewed as the aggressor, a masculine stereotype, and the egg is submissive, a feminine stereotype. Sperm is “active” and “penetrate” while eggs are the “passive” damsels in distress.

In her 1991 article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,[3] Martin argues that this language has damaging effects on how the female gender and sexuality are viewed. In fact, even though new scientific texts identify and acknowledge that the egg in fact plays an active role in “allowing” the sperm to fertilize, they portray the egg (and the female gender) as a disturbingly aggressive. Martin calls this the femme fatale image of society, where women are like spiders that will catch men in their webs. Gender stereotypes are strong still.

Emily Martin’s major influence to anthropological thought is her critical views of the biomedical view of reproduction, including the mechanical model of female bodies and how they fit in with capitalist production methods.[4] Her discussion of pregnancy and childbirth in The Woman in the Body portrays the historical emergence of the idea of body as a machine and the doctor who must actively manage birth.

Furthermore, her discussion portrays the modern forms of power (science, technology, industrialization, and so forth) that permeate our bodies and how we live. She says that bodies are “organized around principles of centralized control and factory-based production.” Sperm production is highly valued because of our society’s emphasis on mass production. She posits that pregnancy and childbirth are managed in an assembly line fashion through the use of technology to fix the broken machine that is the woman’s body, and the focus is on production of the fetus and ultimately a perfect product. Interviews with women illuminate the increasing “fragmentation” that occurs in the modern technological process of birth.


Emily Martin was born in 1944. She was educated at the University of Michigan and then received her PhD in Anthropology at Cornell in 1971. She began her anthropology career doing fieldwork in Taiwan and wrote on Chinese culture and society. She then shifted to a focus on science in the United States.[5]
Martin has taught at Johns Hopkins, Yale, University of California at Irvine, and Princeton University. She is currently a professor at New York University. She was President of the American Ethnological Society and is a founding member of the magazine Anthropology Now.

Her 1987 book The Woman in the Body was awarded the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Eileen Basker Prize for outstanding research in gender and health.[6] Bipolar Expeditions (2007) was the winner of the 2009 Diana Forsythe prize for the best book of feminist anthropological research on work, science, and technology.

Major Publications

  • The Woman in the Body: A cultural Analysis of Reproduction (1987)
  • “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on
  • Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” (1991)
  • Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in America from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS (1995)
  • Biopolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (2007)

Online Resources

Further Reading

  • Anthropology Now http://anthronow.com/ Anthropology Now is an independent initiative committed to claiming a public voice for anthropology.
  • The Psyences Project http://web.me.com/em81/work/Psyences_Project.html The Psy-ences Project is a regional seminar, launched by Elizabeth Lunbeck (History, Vanderbilt), Emily Martin (Anthropology, NYU), and Louis Sass (Clinical Psychology, Rutgers), that will provide a venue for scholars concerned with the emergence and social influence of such disciplines as psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychopharmacology.


  1. ^ “Emily Martin” New York University Department of Anthropology http://anthropology.as.nyu.edu/object/emilymartin.html
  2. ^ Martin, Emily (1987) The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, Boston: Beacon Press
  3. ^ The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles (1991) Signs 16(3) pp. 485-501. Retrieved from: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0097-9740%28199121%2916%3A3%3C485%3ATEATSH%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N
  4. ^ Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. (2003) Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Second edition, Berkeley: University of California Press
  5. ^ Suzanne Kirschner (1999) From Flexible bodies to Fluid Minds: An Interview with Emily Martin http://www.jstor.org/stable/640590 Ethos vol 27 no 3
  6. ^ “Emily Martin” Society for Medical Anthropology’s Conference – Medical Anthropology at the Intersections: Celebrating 50 years of Interdisciplinarity. Retrieved from: http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/smaconference/speakers.html